Bringing Silent Film Home

New Silent Film restorations Little Annie Rooney (1925) and Fanchon the Cricket (1915) produced by the Mary Pickford Foundation and released by Flicker Alley.

Mary Pickford in Little Annie Rooney, DVD Image courtesy of Flicker Alley.

‘No role she can play on the screen is as great as the role she plays in the motion picture industry. Mary Pickford the actress is completely overshadowed by Mary Pickford the individual.’

Herbert Howe in Photoplay, 1924.

When I look around at the brightest, most popular female stars in Hollywood today, I can think of no one you could repeat Howe’s phrase about- at least not yet, while we are in the process of reclaiming our inheritance. The more we discover about the early history of cinema, the more it seems that successive generations have been duped into believing that female roles, behind and in front of the camera, have always been secondary. Surprisingly, when the artform was still in its infancy there were many more prominent women working in the industry at all levels, including Lois Weber, Ida May Park, Cleo Madison, Dorothy Arzner, Mabel Normand, Nell Shipman, Dorothy Davenport, Frances Marion and Mary Pickford. It shakes the contemporary view of linear progress to find examples of female stars like Pickford, with superior earning power to today, studio governance and creative control, writing, producing, acting and directing. As we grapple with the cumulative effects of gender disparity in the film industry- and the wider world, making the work of female pioneers of early cinema visible is an imperative.

Sadly, it is estimated that over 80% of all Silent Films are irretrievably lost. We can only see a mere fraction of what was created, an experience further reduced in quality by inferior online copies, which is why new restorations are so vitally important. Mary Pickford’s Silent screen career is inspirational, setting an example of what can be when women are able to shape their professions from the ground up. As a co-founder of United Artist studios with D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, Pickford ‘the individual’ was blazing a trail in the motion picture industry before the studio rule book as we know it was written. She forged a career with enviable creative control as a producer, a tide now finally turning in the world of Film and TV circa 2018.

New restorations of Pickford’s Fanchon the Cricket (1915) and Little Annie Rooney (1925) are very timely releases, not only in broadening our understanding of Pickford as an artist/producer, but as part of a wider reappraisal of women in film, integral in the history of World Cinema. These new deluxe, dual disc Blu-ray / DVD editions from the Mary Pickford Foundation, released by Flicker Alley, are ‘the first of a planned series of her films’ and what a delight it is to see them!  The care taken in both restorations has delivered clarity of vision, crisp tonal definition, exquisite colour tinting and a seamless flow of storytelling. Sensitively accompanied by new scores, there’s a fresh, exuberant spirit in how these films are presented, perfectly in keeping with the intelligence, empathy and wit we see in Pickford on screen. Big screen cinema/ live musical accompaniment experience aside, you won’t find a better introduction to Pickford’s work for contemporary audiences.

Annie Rooney and her gang. Image courtesy of Flicker Alley.

The restoration journey is a fascinating and painstaking process. The starting point for Little Annie Rooney was ‘the original tinted nitrate print from Pickford’s personal collection at the Library of Congress, preserved photochemically by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Film Archive (AMPAS). A new 35mm preservation master was scanned at 4K high definition’ to create a digital version, ‘evaluating the film frame by frame, removing dirt and other signs of deterioration to perfectly match the original nitrate tints and tones.’ Composer Andy Gladbach was commissioned by the Mary Pickford Foundation to create a new, original soundtrack. A DVD bonus feature and article in the DVD booklet explores Gladbach’s considered approach to the score. Also included in the publication are rare, ‘behind the scenes’ photographs from Little Annie Rooney in production and essays by award winning historian, documentary filmmaker and author Cari Beauchamp, enhancing appreciation of Pickford’s work.

Gladbach’s orchestration includes a variety of sound, with piano, viola, cello, bass, drums, flute, piccolo, clarinet, bass clarinet, trombone and bass trombone. It’s a suitably brassy, rhythmically driven score, bringing Broadway, TV sit-com, Comic and Irish Folk melodic elements aptly into the mix for the film’s ‘downtown’ setting. There’s aural familiarity for a contemporary audience that’s an immediate bridge to the 1925 film, rather than set painting with period music. Our heroine is ‘bold’, spirited, and as she grows up during the course of the film, the music admirably follows her lead. Gladbach successfully builds momentum in alignment with the action, enhancing comedic moments and characterisation with emotive commentary from woodwind and brass. The overall effect is youthful, upbeat and thoroughly enjoyable.

I first saw Little Annie Rooney on the big screen at Glasgow Film Festival in February 2017 and loved it.  It was by far the best feel good film I’d seen in a long time, from any century, and Pickford’s performance was a revelation. I immediately understood why she was so respected, adored and meteorically famous in her own time. I was also convinced that if people had the opportunity to see her work more widely, then she would have a Renaissance, inspiring future generations of filmmakers, women and introducing people to the joys and innovation of Silent Film. In many ways Little Annie Rooney is the perfect family entertainment, with more depth, diversity and heart than the standard fare. In the words of the Geena Davis Institute ‘if she can see it, she can be it’ applies behind and in front of the camera. Pickford wrote, produced and starred, with William Beaudine directing, to great critical acclaim and commercial success. Amazingly Pickford was 33 when she played teenager Annabel (Annie) Rooney, but you’d never guess it from her inexhaustible energy on-screen. The warmth and humanity of a performance that ranges from exuberant childhood innocence to adult understanding of loss, allows the viewer to suspend any disbelief. At base, Annie is a winning character who Pickford inhabits completely, engineered in part to satisfy fans, but also extending beyond the brand of “America’s Sweetheart” or “the girl in curls.”

Pickford’s naturalism is her star quality. That every-person appeal is expanded in the central character, a daughter of Irish immigrants living in a poor neighbourhood. Annie is a strong willed, street fighting, mischievous tomboy with a fiery temper. She’s also a smart, kind and determined young woman, who rises to what the plot throws at her in the most entertaining, endearing and heartrending ways. She’s the spirited embodiment of rising above reduced circumstances, which would have struck a particular chord with audiences during the interwar period. Annie’s neighbourhood is an environment of rival gangs, poverty and crime, seen initially in child’s play battles, with every kid in the neighbourhood out pelting each other with projectiles. At one point we see Annie manoeuvring a pram from the inside like a tank, aptly accompanied by comedic, military style percussion. Although multiculturalism is seen through the lens of the day, it is unusually present at a time when on screen characters were predominantly white. In this context, Pickford’s “mini league of nations” of the playground/ inner city waste-ground, was refreshingly inclusive.

On the domestic front, the relationships between Annie and the masculine world around her are nuanced. Her policeman widower Dad (Walter James) and amiable elder brother Tim (Gordon Griffith) take care of her and she of them, with Annie taking on the role of the absent mother in the household. Their bonds are tender and good natured, with an all-pervasive sense of fairness that doesn’t spill over into saccharine.  Altruism and unconditional love are part of the family, a source of strength and tragedy as the story unfolds. Outside the home, gang rivalries divide the community and descend into violence, with Annie’s future partner Joe Kelly (William Haines) caught up in the crossfire. As a heroine, Annie/ Pickford convincingly carries the film. She’s goodness personified, but without being a one-dimensional, saintly goody two shoes- look at her the wrong way and she’ll still sock you in the jaw! Comedy, tragedy, love and sacrifice are all there, conveyed with Pickford’s natural warmth, humour and skill, qualities that never date.

Fanchon the Cricket (1915) DVD image courtesy of Flicker Alley.

Made 10 years earlier and directed by James Kirkwood, Fanchon the Cricket, sees Pickford starring as a waif and social outcast, alongside her sister Lottie and brother Jack. Based on the 1849 novel La Petite Fadette by George Sand, this ‘adult fairy-tale’ was largely filmed outdoors on location in Pennsylvania. Fanchon lives in the woods with her unloving grandmother, labelled a witch by the local villagers. Wild and unspoiled by society, she is a child of Nature who craves human company and affection. Edward Wynard’s cinematography captures the natural setting and Fanchon’s predicament with stunning visual clarity. At one point, Fanchon’s isolation is expressed tonally in the frame, bisected by darkness and light. We see a circle of dancing villagers held aloft in the distance, while Fanchon watches them in our foreground, separated by a diagonal barrier of foliage. That evasive sense of human contact, longed for, but just out of reach, is communicated entirely by Wynard’s composition. It’s Silent, pure visual storytelling at its illuminating best. Wynard’s cinematography reminded me of the beautiful early stills work of Steichen and Stieglitz, combining the disciplines of photography and painting.

The popularity of Pickford playing a child never waivered throughout her career and this recurrent figure of the child/ woman is an interesting one in connection with the idea of the waif. Chaplin’s ‘tramp’ persona stylised this trope, almost to the point of caricature, but Pickford’s portrayal of a ‘homeless, abandoned and neglected person’ is cast in a mythic guise of childhood, affording the individual freedoms that adult society would never allow.  Until love enters the picture, Cinderella style, Fanchon may be in rags, but she is also her natural, uninhibited self, which is an essential part of her appeal as a character. Although lonely and vulnerable, she’s certainly no damsel in distress. Fearless and resourceful, she dives in to save the hapless “hero” Landry (Jack Standing) on more than one occasion.

Fanchon the Cricket 1915 production still, courtesy of Flicker Alley.

The restoration of this film is a triumph of international collaboration between the Mary Pickford Foundation, Cinémathèque Française and the British Film Institute, who each held elements of the original film in their archives, L’Immagine Laboratory, Italy, responsible for the photochemical and digital restoration of the film and Roundabout Entertainment, Los Angeles, who completed the digital mastering. ‘Colours were recreated using the original tinting notes on the nitrate print and on the dupe negative loaders’ and ‘a new negative and 35mm prints were created from the restored digital version.’ The Mary Pickford Foundation paired Julian Ducatenzeiler and Andy Gladbach to create a new score. The orchestration, for acoustic and electric guitar, flutes, violin, viola, cello, grand piano, electric piano, banjo, mandolin, upright and electric bass, drum kit, auxiliary percussion and vocals, brings a variety of textures and sounds to the interpretation.  The human voice (without lyrics) is used to good effect to invoke memory, together with the ephemeral use of percussion, suspending time in remembrance. Although the range of instruments is broad and contemporary, especially in the use of guitar and electric piano, there is clarity and depth of feeling in restraint. We feel complex emotions like longing underpinning dramatic scenes in the selective use of solo/ lone character instrumentation. Piano, strings and lower woodwind take us deeper into Fanchon’s shifting emotional states. It’s a musical partnership that feels suitably tempered by the soul of the film, something which can often be missing on Silent DVD releases and in newly commissioned live accompaniments, when contemporary musicians simply perform over the film. Thankfully the ethos of ‘serving the film’ shines through in Ducatenzeiler and Gladbachs’ musical accompaniment.

Fanchon The Cricket is a wonderful example of how digital technology, communication and international expertise can be used to put film back together again in a project of global importance. Pickford herself believed that the film had been lost, so there is something very poignant about this release as a found object, drawn from different continents, the Old World and the New. I wish she could see it and her continuing legacy in this DVD release, which includes essays by Cari Beauchamp, placing Pickford’s remarkable work in historical, professional and thematic context. These new releases are a great introduction to a largely unknown era in Film, via DVD, Blu-ray and high definition live streaming.

The late Scottish composer and multi-instrumentalist Martyn Bennett once said that in order to be pioneers, we must first acknowledge that we are heirs. This is certainly true of women working in all artistic disciplines, consistently written out of history. As we rediscover their incredible achievements, perhaps we can gain confidence in possibility, building careers from the ground up in new ways, redefining expectations, reshaping industry and the wider world in the process. Mary Pickford’s talent, imagination and business acumen were a visible leading light in her time and in our own. Yes, this is entertainment, but in the current climate, Pickford’s heroic determination and humanity steps right off the screen into our living rooms. This is an exciting start to an entire process of restoration, reappraisal and Renaissance, for Mary Pickford and for women in film.

https://marypickford.org/

flickeralley.com

Klimt / Schiele

Drawings from the Albertina Museum, Vienna
Royal Academy of Arts, London
4 November 2018 – 3 February 2019

Egon Schiele, Seated Female Nude, Elbows Resting on Right Knee, 1914
Graphite, gouache on Japan paper, 48 x 32 cm
The Albertina Museum, Vienna
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Albertina Museum, Vienna

Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit. / To the age its art, to art its freedom. (i)

The day before the Klimt / Schiele preview, I saw a London Underground billboard advertising the exhibition. Three naked figures with a banner collectively preserving modesty declared this work too shocking for public display, even in 2018. Potential offence and outrage are ever present in contemporary life, lived mostly online, with critical discussion and reflection harder to find. Coming face to face with humanity, warts and all, is a given with this exhibition and it would be a shame to expect anything less. Unmasking the nature of provocation and social propriety is unavoidable when following the drawn line of both artists. Although the official PR images don’t come close to representing it, the viewer is consistently arrested, having to psychologically, morally and ethically grapple with where they stand, often in relation to taboo subjects.

As the first exhibition in the UK to focus on the drawing practice of both artists, Klimt / Schiele presents a rare opportunity to see over 100 delicate works on paper from the Albertina Museum, Vienna. Among these are some of the finest examples of life drawing I’ve ever had the privilege to see, sublime, assured and intensely beautiful. Equally I loved this exhibition for the disquieting, uncomfortable questions it raised and for the timeless radicalism of both artists which positively sings, howls and scratches its way off the walls. The drawings are on an intimate scale and arranged thematically to highlight each artist’s creative process, explore relationships between them and engage with the confrontational nature of their work in juxtaposition. Together with this insightful visual survey, the centenary of the deaths of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) and Egon Schiele (1890-1918) provide a timely focus for questions about art and censorship in our own time.

Gustav Klimt, Standing Pair of Lovers, 1907-08
Graphite, red pencil, gold paint on Japan paper, 29.6 x 28.2 cm
The Albertina Museum, Vienna. The Batliner Collection
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Albertina Museum, Vienna

Having been reproduced in golden decorative splendour on posters, t-shirts and greetings cards the world over, Klimt’s radicalism, his essential rejection of the academic art establishment, has almost been gift shopped out of public consciousness. However, this decorative, chocolate box status is effectively stripped away by the pioneering vision of his line, which resonated with Schiele the moment he saw the older artist’s work. Outside the German speaking world, the cultural gravity of the gesamtkunstwerk as a lived idea is often lost or misunderstood. This, together with the 21st century assumption of unrelenting human progress makes it is easy to perceive Klimt as an artist of gilded aesthetics, rather than an innovator or iconoclast. The much-celebrated ‘Golden Age’ of his work, including highly romanticised images like The Kiss, paint an insubstantial picture of the artist. Society portraits that enshrine the sitter in fashionably liberated attire, steeped in colour, symbolic pattern and ancient mythology have become merely decorative to contemporary eyes. What’s gratifying about this exhibition is returning to the bones of Klimt’s art, to drawings which are the basis of his understanding and first response to the world around him. The human figure is central to that vision, and how he renders it paves the way for large scale paintings and the work of artists like Schiele.

Klimt’s state commission of three 4.5 x 3m faculty paintings Medicine, Philosophy and Jurisprudence for the University of Vienna caused a public scandal. The preparatory drawings for Medicine, including Klimt’s Sketch for Medicine, squared for transfer (c. 1900, black chalk and pencil on paper) and Three Studies for the Oil Sketch of Medicine (Black chalk on packing paper, 1897-98) reveal his immediate concern with the drawn line as a potent flow of energy. Sculpted with line and animated shading, three female studies drawn from below, floating above the viewer with their arms outstretched, are an invitation to the entire dance of life. They are a dynamic invocation of where we are led in Klimt’s paintings, an engagement with humanity that encompasses the human cycle of procreation, birth and inevitable decay. It is a departure from the idealised perfection and austerity of 19th Century academic Neo-Classical painting. Looking at these studies there is a complete sense of abandonment and a vital, emergent rhythm that steps across all boundaries of time. In Klimt’s Sketch for Medicine, the human body is seen unflatteringly variable in form, aging and vulnerable. This expression of humanity has undeniable impetus in an era of Darwin, Freud and in the context of turn of the century Vienna, once described as ‘the research lab at the end of the world.’ Age old certainties and regimes were crumbling, giving way to modernity and the horrors of mechanised warfare. In Medicine Klimt presents the viewer with over 40 entwined figures bound by instinct to eternal cycles of growth and decay, rather than the elevation and respectability of a noble profession. At the apex of the column, the skeleton/ Death will eventually claim us all, despite the goddess of cleanliness, hygiene and healing, Hygieia at the base of the image, like a caryatid holding up the vertical procession of figures above her. Advances in science and social conventions may define our lives and try to keep us ‘safe’, however from cradle to grave natural drives, creative and destructive, are constantly shaping our trajectory. There’s a feeling of free fall in Klimt’s three female studies for Medicine that to me, sum up the context of Klimt’s time and our own. The earth beneath our feet is no longer stable.

Egon Schiele, Cellist, 1910
Black chalk, watercolour on packing paper, 44.7 x 31.2 cm
The Albertina Museum, Vienna
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Albertina Museum, Vienna

There are many astonishing works in the Klimt/ Schiele exhibition that confront the viewer on multiple levels. The sheer skill of draughtsmanship and investment in the human mark is impressive throughout. These aren’t just bodies but souls on display, a quality which will probably cause some discomfort to 21st Century eyes accustomed to the clinical separation of the two. It is stunning in every sense of that word, to be confronted with work that floors you with its unapologetic rawness. As a life drawing student, recognition between sitter and artist is paramount and I was ever conscious, especially in Schiele’s work, of the complex nature of one human being beholding and documenting the living presence of another. Schiele’s Black-Haired Nude Girl (1910, Pencil and watercolour with protein-based binder and white gouache heightening on packing paper) elicited particularly strong responses. I watched people giving this piece a wide berth, mentally and physically distancing themselves from the image of a young girl meeting the gaze of the artist/ viewer. Even the catalogue reproduction triggered shocked, sharp intakes of breath. The girl’s trade is very clearly defined in black stockings, with her lips, nipples and labia accented in red. As an image of child prostitution, it is (and should be) a disturbing sight. On the streets of Vienna circa 1910, where the age of consent was 14, it would not have been uncommon for underage girls to be working due to grinding poverty, partially sanctioned by what we would now consider to be an immoral law. Over 100 years later, in an age defined by mass displacement and global human trafficking, gross economic inequality still rules. Although the depiction of the subject may be hard to look at and/or deeply upsetting, the Schiele’s image deserves closer scrutiny. Not simply because it still has the power to shock, but because the gaze of the human subject demands it.

What struck me most about this drawing wasn’t the red-light triangle labelling of the body, but the embodiment of ‘Death and the Maiden’ in this adolescent female figure. Her body is thin, angular and death grey-pale with blackened fingertips, hands drawn up beside her face, eyes which regard and consider the artist/viewer across the ages. It is a powerful portrait of an unknown girl right on the edge of burgeoning sexuality, arguably the most excruciatingly difficult of all stages of life. I had to confront and question my initial disgust, because whatever circumstances led her into this pose, there is dignity in her gaze, captured by the artist. On a human level, the projection of judgement is problematic and in any case that is not what Schiele’s treatment of the figure conveys. I don’t see this image as one of seduction or desire. Both ideas as projections of a male gaze are negated by the presence of the girl herself; naked, vulnerable and eternally questioning. She stands like a column, anchoring herself in a world of brutality, poverty and decay, with a halo of thin white gouache around her. It’s an image that is impossible to make peace with or to feel comfortable in front of, but that, I would argue, is precisely the point. I am certain that many people would regard this image as obscene and simply turn away in order to distance themselves from it. However, whether it is pornographic i.e. explicitly created for sexual arousal/ gratification by the artist is debateable. Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of this drawing is that Schiele doesn’t just paint the body and face of this girl, he captures something else, her uniquely perceptive expression. I agree that the idea of maturity in this image is highly contentious, complex and bound to historical perception of Schiele as a male artist. However, that this girl’s gaze is still present, questioning the viewer with mistrust, is significant and I am glad that anyone visiting the exhibition will see and bear witness to the fact that she existed. One doesn’t detect the same empathy in front of a Balthus painting or one of Hans Bellmer’s dolls, where there is absolutely no self-possession afforded to female subjects, wholly objectified by the artist. Schiele’s work may be ambiguous, but many of his images of women and girls grasp the human beings before him in ways that other male artists, historic or contemporary, could not. Schiele’s drawings Embrace (1915, Black crayon on Japan paper) and Group of Three Girls (1911, pencil, watercolour and gouache with white gouache heightening on packing paper) are good examples.

Egon Schiele
Group of Three Girls, 1911
Graphite, watercolour, white and coloured gouaches on brown packing paper, 44.7 x 30.8 cm
The Albertina Museum, Vienna
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Albertina Museum, Vienna

It’s fascinating to see Schiele’s naked self-portraits subject to the same line of enquiry as his sitters, with terse dry brush marks and tensely drawn ribs, squatting, arms outstretched and excruciatingly truncated. Collectively they are interrogative rather than celebratory, not just kicking over the white marble pedestal but smashing it. Self-proclaimed artistic genius gives way to everyman/woman, subject to the same raw anxieties about one’s place in the world. The positioning of the figure in Schiele’s compositions has always fascinated me. The lone human being is consistently pitted against the negative space engulfing them, not just as a pictorial element but as an existential crisis. I get the same feeling from Klimt’s Lady with Cape and Hat (1897-98, Black and red chalk on paper) an innocuously titled drawing that engulfs the lone protagonist in finely spun darkness.

Gustav Klimt, Standing Female Nude (Study for The Three Gorgons; Beethoven Frieze), 1901
Black chalk on brown packing paper, 44.5 x 31.9 cm
The Albertina Museum, Vienna
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Albertina Museum, Vienna

The figure of the femme fatale, embodied by the sinuous curves of Kilmt’s Beethoven Frieze Gorgon studies (1901, Black chalk on packing paper) is given more considered depth in Schiele’s work. Female Nude (1910, Pencil, black crayon, watercolour and gouache with white gouache heightening on packing paper) is a fine example. The female figure, crowned with deep crimson hair and narrowed eyes meets the gaze of the artist/ client/viewer, back arched, belly, breasts, vulva and the top of her blood-black stockings all unashamedly visible. There’s a feeling of the male artist being sized up by the model’s fixed gaze, rather than being submissive to any kind of ‘master’. It is an intensely powerful portrait, more a measure of a person than a life study. She’s not just draped and arranged, but pointedly takes charge of the composition. Even the focus on the torso doesn’t diminish her mindfully present, penetrating gaze. The same Female Nude, Seen from Behind (1910, Black crayon and watercolour with white gouache heightening on packing paper) is elongated and angular, we can feel the spine and hip bones protruding, surrounded by an aura of living energy. The heightening use of white gouache charges the human figure with a kind of electricity against the plain beige ground of packing paper. This everyday rough texture permeates the entire drawing. Schiele’s models were family, friends, prostitutes and street children, there is nothing glamourous or idealised about them. As an artist he appears to meet his sitters halfway as equals, regardless of age, gender or sexual orientation.

Sexuality in the work of Schiele is very permissive and surprisingly liberated in its antiquity. Unlike Rodin’s erotic drawings, simply powered by male voyeurism, Schiele’s drawings present a more expansive, self-determined view of female sexuality and present a variety of human embraces, between men, between women and between sexes. Curatorially the exhibition takes the idea of Klimt’s Embracing Couple (Study for ‘This kiss for the Entire World’, ‘Beethoven Frieze’) (1901, Blackchalk on packing paper) and expands it in a sequence of drawings in the final room. The erotic focus becomes more fluid than masculine dominance and is critically punctuated by an adjacent drawing, Man and Woman (1917, Pencil and black crayon on Japan paper). This is a work and a kind of fractured, disintegrating mark I hadn’t seen in Schiele’s work before. It struck me as an admission of inequality, starkly violent and ever present in the world. At the base of the drawing a woman lies with her back to us, clothing drawn up while the male figure kneels over her, his face and hands a series of broken, incomplete marks. The drawn detail centres on his hairy, bestial hips, legs and feet and her static head and hair, topped and tailed together, almost as a bookended comment on the male/ female relationship. She is remarkably still, drawn complete by comparison, while he goes about his business, blindly fuelled by instinct. His raised arms ambiguously flail-is he about to embrace her or exert further control by pinning her neck and head? Whilst physical male dominance is present, so is confusion on the part of the male protagonist, communicated by faceless, broken lines. It’s an extremely interesting image of power and pity, because strangely that’s how I felt towards the male figure, despite the position of the woman beneath him. ‘What is the artist’s/ viewer’s position in all of this?’ is the uncomfortable question that must be faced when confronted by this drawing, doubly so in a room of ‘Erotic’ themed work. Provocation, propriety and politics are at the heart of this valuable and very timely encounter.

There were many other aspects of both artist’s practices to be considered and I took three turns around the exhibition, revisiting connections and themes, as well as just pausing to drink in the confident line of human form held in negative space. I found insistence on life in the architectural façade of Schiele’s Old Gabled Houses in Krumau (1917, black crayon on Japan paper) and in the human presence in absence of Organic Movement of Chair and Pitcher, 21 April 1912 (Pencil and watercolour on primed Japan paper), created during the artist’s incarceration. Klimt / Schiele is an exhibition which makes the viewer grapple with where they stand in an age of uncertainty, reminding us that the relative freedoms of our age are exactly that.

In 2017, the inscription above the Vienna Succession building threshold, ‘To every time its art. To art its freedom’, was adopted by the Austrian far right nationalist government as part of their cultural policy, an ideological alignment rejected by the Association of Visual Artists Vienna Succession. Seeing the Klimt / Schiele exhibition reminded me of a statement ‘of relevance and quality’ issued by the association on 20 December 2017 in response to the government’s misappropriation of the Successionist motto:
‘Freedom of the arts is necessarily premised on internationality, pluralism, and dialogue. The notion that art’s purpose is to buttress a national collective identity presses it into a service that runs counter to its thematic diversity. We are persuaded that it is only in the horizon of this freedom that art can attain relevance and quality.

The freedom our motto demands extends far beyond the individual creative articulation: the exchange of ideas in a larger, pluralistic, international context is what endows the individual voices with cultural significance. That is why culture cannot be reduced to art objects or musical compositions. Nor can it be assessed on the quantitative scales of visitor figures, market values, or the circulation of works. An open society is the air that art needs to breathe. When a government does not champion a free society, its promise to respect the freedom of the arts is no more than a rhetorical exercise.’ (ii)

At the heart of the Klimt/ Schiele exhibition is the embrace of artistic freedom, ‘pluralism and dialogue’ which begins with both artist’s drawings, extends through the thematic hang of the show and in the collaboration between the Royal Academy and the Albertina Museum in a pre-Brexit landscape. When I look at free movement of the human body in Klimt and Schiele’s remarkable drawings, I’m inspired by what lives in those lines, the questions they raise and the fact that I can look at them in a relatively ‘free society’, despite any discomfort they may cause me. Although aged 100 years, this is the art of our time and it needs to be examined

https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/klimt-schiele 

[1] Inscription above the door of the Vienna Succession exhibition hall, Friedrichstraße 12, 1010 Vienna, Austria.

[2]Art News ‘ Austria’s Far Right Adopts the Motto of Vienna’s Artistic Avante-Garde- and They’re Not All Pleased’ by Hili Perlson, December 22, 2017.  https://news.artnet.com/art-world/vienna-museum-takes-a-stand-as-austrias-new-right-wing-government-quotes-its-motto-1187462

Revisionism and the Art of Decay

“Poetry fettered fetters the human race. Nations are destroyed or flourish in proportion as their poetry, painting and music are destroyed or flourish” William Blake

Detail J.M. Waterhouse Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) Manchester Art Gallery.

In July I attended the opening of the Emil Nolde- Colour is Life exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, the subject of a previous post. It’s an exhibition that has remained in my mind ever since, for the issues it raised as much as the art. When the show first opened in Dublin, The Independent ran with the headline; “Can you enjoy great art created by a Nazi? New Emile Nolde exhibition explores this dilemma.” William Cook’s article suggested that; “the big question for our times is whether you can condemn someone’s sexual conduct, and still enjoy their art. In the case of painter Emil Nolde, can we delight in his work even though he was an enthusiastic supporter of Adolf Hitler?” This question has been compounded by reports of wider historical revisionism in the press throughout 2018. Some based on well-meaning curatorial or civic actions, all begging further investigation.

The renaming of a 1929 Emily Carr painting by the Art Gallery of Ontario, the removal of a 19th Century nude painting by J.M. Waterhouse at the Manchester Art Gallery, the recent controversy of boycotted music by Richard Wagner aired on Israeli radio and the removal of an “Early Days” racist colonial statue in San Francisco are all potent examples, worthy of their own article.  Each one is an act of historical revisionism that raises essential questions about who owns culture. Who has the right to alter or remove historical documents, artefacts or art objects from public view and under what circumstances, if at all? In my profession all art is political, whether consciously nailing its colours to the mast or not. The expression of ideas can certainly be dangerous, depending on the ideological intent of the maker and the lens of hindsight / historical context we use to examine it. However, reading a book, seeing a play, film, art exhibition or listening to music doesn’t mean you agree with the content or the opinions of the artist(s) who created it. You have free will (as long as you live in a place that hasn’t banned the means of expression) to make up your own mind. At what point did we need to be protected from that process and for whose benefit?

Cover of the exhibition programme from the Degenerate Art Exhibition. Germany 1937. Wikipedia Commons.

In 1937 Hitler staged an exhibition of Modern Art to “educate” the public on the “art of decay.” Masquerading as a righteous, moral crusade in the national interest, it was a visual statement of “otherness”, establishing that freedom of expression would not be tolerated by the ruling party. Artists were cast as “degenerate” in this political theatre, banned, exiled, imprisoned and killed. The removal and destruction of “impure” art from museums and Nazi book burnings are examples of the threat posed by independent, creative thinking to the art of control. Dictators understand the power of culture as a mirror of identity, an instrument of mass manipulation and conformity. It’s a fine line in any crusade between judging what is morally right and wrong and imposition of will at the expense of other human beings.  Depending on what uniform is being worn at any point in human history, judgement and revision of what is morally and socially acceptable can result in progressive freedom and equality or persecution and genocide. The history of art makes these human triumphs and horrors visible in high definition. Arguably the study and preservation of these objects helps us not to forget who we were, are and could be, for good or ill. Whether we like what we see is a different question.

Adolf Hitler and Adolf Ziegler inspect the installation by Willrich and Hansen of the Degenerate art Show, 1937. The wall behind them calls attention to the works of the Dada artists with depreciatory comments. Photographer not known (“anonymous”). Retrieved from Northwestern University, Illinois, 31 December 2007.Wikipedia Commons.

The implications of branding art as dangerous, offensive or immoral are complex, far reaching and in the current reactionary climate, deeply troubling. Simply expressing outrage, assigning blame and obliterating the perceived cause without wider self-reflection and ethical debate is irresponsible. Social media gives people the ability to celebrate and condemn instantly and without responsibility, a power to brand which on its own does nothing to prevent history repeating itself. Hitler was fuelled by outrage, blame and the desire to obliterate in the name of making Germany great again, installing himself as the ultimate author of truth. State sanctioned persecution deemed morally and socially acceptable by the Third Reich is derided today in the minds of the majority of people. However, we should never forget what Hannah Arendt described as the “banality of evil”. Branding something or someone as evil, as part of a morally black or white worldview, is a psychological trick of language, effectively containing that evil beyond ourselves. It might make us feel better and morally superior temporarily, but that labelling of otherness also enables abdication of responsibility. Calling evil out isn’t enough, because it is always closer to home than we want to believe or admit.

On one level, the post-Weinstein pariah effect, reappraising and potentially banning work by artists accused of sexual abuse feels like democratic justice gone viral. Like a boil being lanced, there’s relief at the outpouring of pain and exposure of toxic masculinity, both long overdue. Whether legal prosecution and punishment follows from the Whitehouse to Hollywood and beyond remains to be seen. Whilst the public expulsion of bad men from positions of power, authority and celebrity sends a message of zero tolerance, it falls short in addressing everyday lived experience. The #MeToo tsunami is profoundly positive on many levels, however the gap between being heard on social media and behavioural change in the real world requires further closure, moving towards greater human equality. The underlying nature of humanity and the use, or abuse, of power is what is demanding a re-trial here and now.

Art can and should confront us with uncomfortable truths about human behaviour and is equally the way we imagine alternative realities, out-create destruction and actively shape a brighter future. Though threatened with removal from the curriculum at every turn, Art History and the Humanities have never been more relevant or necessary to human survival. When I saw the Nolde show it made me deeply uncomfortable. Even in the positive light of many of his paintings, I stood there grappling with my moral and ethical compass. Rather than magnetically finding North, the arrow constantly quivered between the artist/human being, the work and the self-righteous comfort of historical hindsight. I accept that uneasy and sometimes disturbing process because critically it’s part of my job. I’ve always believed that challenging the viewer is an essential function of art, individually and collectively. An object or body of work that makes you own up to who you are, what you value, support, and more importantly why, is always invaluable.

Today many commemorative sculptures exist around the world from an age of colonisation that are a source of profound pain and distress to indigenous people. As monuments erected by oppressors over the oppressed, they represent enslavement, abuse and institutionalised racism. There have been numerous calls for such public sculptures to be torn down. Seeing a press image of the “Early Days” statue in San Francisco, the call for removal is understandable. The depiction of an indigenous ancestor positioned at the feet of colonisers describes a power differential that is abhorrent on multiple levels. However, does banning, burning or hiding such objects from public view extinguish the offensive ideologies that made them and create a more just society? That depends entirely on the world view and intent of the removalists. Reinterpret a monument, place context around it, but never forget what happened where you stand. Erasing history and acknowledging it are very different trajectories in terms of healing and reconciliation, in the individual and collective psyche.

Statue of the Duke of Sutherland, Ben Bhraggie, Golspie. Photo by John Halsam 2008. Wikipedia Commons.

In the North of Scotland, a 19th Century statue of the Duke of Sutherland stands on top of Ben Bhraggie surveying the town of Golspie below. Sutherland was a landowner responsible for clearances of local people for profit and the positioning of his monument speaks volumes. It is the kind of posturing still seen in the culture of vast Highland Estates as playgrounds for the elite and in the many phallic sculptural monuments to victory and conquest throughout the British Empire. The Sutherland monument immediately stands out against the surrounding landscape, declaring itself as unsympathetically alien. Visually and ideologically it hangs rather than glorifies itself which is why, as much as it offends me, I don’t think it should be torn down. The total removal of such a relic stops the conversation, not just in terms of the history of the area, but its contemporary relevance. Eradicating the possibility of pointing to the object, asking why it is there and who made it silences a necessary, ongoing debate. Future generations and visitors have a prompt to stop, remember and learn what happened here. In many ways the offensive statue is a rallying point, for examination of land ownership and management in Scotland. In recent times it has been ironically denoted, utilised as a flagpole during the campaign for Scottish independence. The meaning of an offensive object like this can be positively changed while remaining visible.

Fearless Girl  by Kirsten Visbal and Charging Bull by Arturo Di Modica. Wikipedia Commons.

Installed near Wall St, New York on the eve of International Women’s Day 2017, sculptor Kristen Visbal’s Fearless Girl is a good example of contemporary revisionism by proxy. This statue was positioned in relation to an existing work, Arturo Di Modica’s 11ft tall, 7100 pound Charging Bull. Di Modica wanted Visbal’s work removed, because it demonised his testosterone laden vision of positive market forces. The female child squaring up to a symbol of toxic masculinity, compounded by the financial crash and its global consequences, is a very interesting cultural face off. The sculptures are now entwined in the public imagination and a popular tourist attraction, with the proposal to move not just one but both to a different location in the financial district. The relationship between these works is contentious, but it is also an essential flashpoint in asking questions about who holds power in that location / market driven society and why. This kind of juxtaposition is perhaps what is needed in response to offensive monuments and artefacts in public places. We need to interrogate how these objects speak to us and the powers that erected them. That cannot be achieved by simply removing or destroying them, so that we can comfortably forget they existed.  Nor can it be achieved by simply renaming objects according to the political correctness of the day.

Indian Church / Church at Yuquot Village by Emily Carr 1929. Art Gallery of Ontario. Wikipedia Commons.

Earlier this year the Art Gallery of Ontario renamed a 1929 painting by Emily Carr from Indian Church to Church at Yuquot Village, part of a wider trend of reappraisal of colonial terminology in museum/ gallery collections around the world. I completely disagree with changing the name of a historical work named by the artist. Removing the title is merely another type of whitewash. I understand given the history of colonialism, residential schools in Canada and the negative, generic application of the word “Indian”, why it is considered hurtful and offensive. However, this language is part of the historical context Carr lived in and unfortunately the ideology that supported it isn’t dead and buried. I think it is infinitely more useful to face the title and start the conversation there. For someone coming to this painting unaware of its history calling it by the territorial place name may remove the offence, but it also removes the possibility of honest confrontation with the past. Cultural sensitivity works both ways- having read Carr’s writings and studied her work in detail I believe this work is an inappropriate target. I wrote about this painting in detail in an earlier blogpost in response to a show of Carr’s work in 2015 at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London. http://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/category/emily-carr/  The presentation of that show, with indigenous art juxtaposed with Carr’s, together with examples of her writing/ thinking created context around the painting that an empty wall or patronising museum label could not.

Indian Church raises important questions of language and conflict, within the individual and society as a whole. I believe it is highly questionable to alter the artist’s language in this context. The title may be politically incorrect and offensive today, but it speaks volumes, so why silence that debate for future generations who need to understand the past in order to create equality in the future? When the Art Gallery of Ontario altered the painting’s title, an adjacent information panel was installed, describing the gallery’s reasons for changing the name. In this case the catalyst for debate should be the named work itself. The viewer should be given the opportunity to grapple with the offending word and its ramifications themselves, rather than having a curator sanitise it for them. Carr can and does speak for herself as an artist and her regard for indigenous people is rather more complicated than this simplistic historical revision suggests. In my mind the painting presents the stark white reality of Carr’s colonial upbringing against the deep green undulating life of the forest.  It isn’t the rigid 19th Century Christian missionary architecture/world view she embraced, but the spiritual core of what she called her “beloved West”. For Carr this spiritual connection was exemplified by the indigenous peoples of the Pacific North West coast, their intimate relationship with the land and cultural practices, honouring the divine in Nature. Although in many ways corseted by her time, she was above all else trying to understand rather than conquer the world around her. Applying a revised definition of language indiscriminately to her work shuts down discussion of its complexity which is a means of contemporary reconciliation. I’d argue that being “politically correct” in this case is entirely inappropriate. The work is actually bigger and more inclusive of human experience than the contemporary curator’s appraisal of it.

Hylas and the Nymphs by J. M. Waterhouse. 1896. Manchester Art Gallery. Wikipedia Commons.

Another interesting case emerged in February, when the Manchester Art Gallery removed J.M. Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) to “prompt conversation” sparking a public furore. Publicity stunt or not, this act of historical revisionism claimed to challenge female objectification and “Victorian fantasy”. It certainly generated discussion about gender equality, feminism, censorship, curatorial responsibility and the role of museums in a post #MeToo cultural landscape. As I wrote at the time;

‘I find censorship a thousand times more offensive and dangerous than a naked female body. It is how the female body has been depicted throughout history and the political, social and cultural implications of that display that should be the subject of debate. Removing artworks simply breeds ignorance. The basic principle of freedom of speech and expression is at stake. I may not agree with the viewpoint of the artist, but I would never advocate obliteration. Art History is a visual record of everything we are and are capable of as a species, the good the bad and the very ugly! That’s what makes it so valuable and instructive. May it always be visible for future generations to learn from.’

Then I saw something in the news coverage that disturbed me more than the removal of the painting. It was a comment by a teenage schoolgirl, saying that Hylas and the Nymphs made her feel ashamed. I was dismayed at this heartfelt statement. Was this historical image just another in an infinite line of images encircling her in the present? There was no awareness of context, either in her statement or in the rest of the press coverage I saw. The thematic Pre-Raphaelite “Pursuit of Beauty” in the gallery space or the underlying mythology of the painting was ignored over public outrage. Looking at Waterhouse’s image, my teenage self may also have felt shame in the way that beauty and desirability is defined in this work. However, this age old male fantasy was never destined to end well. In the very next moment, Hylas and his desire would be no more, dragged to the bottom of the pool and Waterhouse by his very nature forever defined within a school of painting, its own kind of prison. What made me feel dismay was the subservient emotion of shame, still alive in the mind of a teenage schoolgirl in 2018. The painting didn’t make her angry, ready to face off age old assumptions, but passively ashamed of this depiction of female bodies and seemingly by the proximity of her own body to it. The shame she expressed strikes me as a symptom of a greater disease. Rightly or wrongly, Waterhouse’s image exists in the world and I would hope that progressive education would equip a younger generation to square up to it, rather than feeling lesser in its outdated presence.

Too often the language of outrage, offense and victimhood indiscriminately govern responses to any point of view that does not match our own. Waterhouse’s painting, like Balthus’s highly controversial Thérèse Dreaming (1938, Metropolitan Museum, New York) is uncomfortable viewing and I agree we should be critical of the male gaze that created them. However, I am even more critical of what has been described as New Puritanism, completely hypocritical in the current climate. Waterhouse’s nymphs pale in comparison to the psychological damage inflicted on young women every day via social media, an onslaught of idealised beauty without the visual literacy to filter it.  I know the art of the past is part of that cumulative picture, however, popular culture circa 2018 plays to the dominant male gaze in ways that have become so internalised, it feels like there are no safe spaces left. The #MeToo movement has made visible the degree to which women are made to feel judged, ashamed and unsafe every day of their lives for generations. Such an environment makes art an essential tool in creating critical spaces to re-examine the nature of power, gender and equality- in our society and within ourselves. Galleries, museums, cinemas, libraries, theatres, concert halls and city streets should not be sanitised by removing what is perceived as offensive historical material. These are essential public arenas to challenge accepted ideals.

Composer Richard Wagner, Paris, 1867. Wikipedia Commons.

Earlier this month, Israeli Classical radio station Kol HaMusica broadcast Wagner’s music, despite the country’s boycott. Complaints, public outcry and apologies immediately followed, together with a pledge by the radio station not to repeat the “error” of judgement for fear of offending Holocaust survivors. It is well documented that Wagner was Hitler’s favourite composer and that Wagner himself was an anti-Semite. However, attempting to shield victims with a public ban on this music amounts to patronising censorship. In the words of Jonathan Livny, head of the Israel Wagner Society, whose father was a Holocaust survivor, “Whoever doesn’t want to hear the music can always turn the radio off.”

Art in all its forms expresses the darkness and light of humanity, enables us to bear witness and remember (or wake up) who we are. In the spirit of cultural exchange, art and music have the ability to cross all borders and boundaries, exposing us to alternative ways of seeing and initiating change. In this I would deny nothing in a public museum, gallery space or broadcast. Even objects/ ideologies of hatred and violence need to be honestly examined, with attention given to their historical context and interpretation, no matter how abhorrent they may appear to contemporary eyes. Making sense of why they were made and the consequences of those actions have implications in the present and for future generations. What objects hold in terms of human experience, identity and memory should not be underestimated. It’s the reason Hitler held the Degenerate Art Exhibition in 1937, to denounce freedom of expression in contemporary art of the time and to stamp out its practitioners as branded enemies of the state. What constituted “good art”, what would be produced, collected, publicly shown and celebrated was entirely defined by the ruling party. It’s essential to identify who the ruling parties are in the times you’re living in and not assume that human progress is linear.

Whilst I applaud revisionism that re-interprets the meaning of historical records, artefacts or art, I don’t see negationism as the answer to wrong doing. The current Zeitgeist of a “post truth” internet driven world makes distortion and denial of history so much easier to enact and publicly justify. The writing is on the gallery wall. I would rather live in a society where I am free to interpret past and present human behaviour, than one which decides what is offensive for me and only presents what the ruling party, institution or curator decides is acceptable for me to see. I have no doubt that there will be more Indian Church, Hylas and Wagnerian battles ahead and that the #MeToo watershed moment will evolve in waves of backlash and progress. I hope that progress wins and that the role the arts have to play in this war progressively realign with creative power over celebrity. The state of the arts always reveals whether we live in a fettered society or not. The question is not whether we can delight in the work of “immoral” artists, but whether we can afford not to look at it at all.

Press articles:

Can you enjoy great art created by a Nazi? New Emile Nolde exhibition explores this dilemma by William Cook, The Independent, 23 February 2018.

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/emile-nolde-nazi-art-artist-exhibition-germany-edinburgh-fascist-adolf-hitler-a8221926.html

Why the Art Gallery of Ontario removed ‘Indian’ from the name of this Emily Carr painting by Sheena Goodyear. As it Happens, CBC Radio 22 May 2018.

https://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-tuesday-edition-1.4672905/why-the-art-gallery-of-ontario-removed-indian-from-the-name-of-this-emily-carr-painting-1.4672934

Gallery removes naked nymphs painting to ‘prompt conversation’ by Mark Brown, The Guardian, 31 January 2018.

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/jan/31/manchester-art-gallery-removes-waterhouse-naked-nymphs-painting-prompt-conversation

Israeli public radio apologises after playing Hitler’s favourite composer Richard Wagner, The Telegraph, 3 September 2018.

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/09/03/israeli-public-radio-apologises-playing-hitlers-favourite-composer/

San Francisco statue criticized as racist to Indigenous people removed, The Associated Press, CBC News, 14 September 2018 

 https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/san-francisco-racist-statue-removed-1.4824013

NOW

JENNYSAVILLE, SARA BARKER,CHRISTINE BORLAND, ROBIN RHODE, MARKUS SCHINWALD and CATHERINE STREET. 

JENNY SAVILLE
Rosetta II, 2005 – 2006
Oil on watercolour paper, mounted on board, 252 x 187.5cm
Private collection © Jenny Saville
Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

March until 16 September 2018
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern One), Edinburgh.

It’s hard to believe that the latest instalment of NOW, part of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s contemporary art programme, is the first major showing of Jenny Saville’s work in Scotland and only her third exhibition in a UK museum. It seems that for many of our finest artists, international acclaim is a pre-requisite for national acknowledgement. The Scottish National Gallery’s newly acquired Study for Branded (1992, Oil on paper, 100.3 x 74.4 cm) is amazingly the only example of Saville’s work currently in a UK public collection, made possible by the Henry and Sula Walton Fund.  Whilst the curatorial aim of the three year NOW exhibition programme is very much about placing contemporary Scottish Art in an international context, it also illuminates the national context of how we regard art and artists in the 21st century.

The purchase of multiple works from Saville’s Glasgow School of Art graduating show by collector Charles Saatchi, her participation in the Saatchi Gallery’s Young British Artists III exhibition (1994) and the Royal Academy’s exhibition Sensation: Young British Artists (1997), effectively launched Saville’s career in terms currency on the international art market. However, that’s not what gives her work its immense power, universality, or ultimate value. As five rooms of her work spanning 26 years powerfully testify, she achieves that integrity entirely on her own terms. The scale of this artist’s emotional intelligence, discipline and command of painting is truly extraordinary, crossing multiple boundaries in how we perceive the female body, art and humanity.

In the history of Western Art and the Scottish figurative tradition Saville’s work radically transforms perception of the female nude with its unflinching honesty. Presenting completely “un-idealised”, “uncompromising” images of the human body, Saville confronts us with the timeless and sometimes overwhelming truth of human vulnerability. It’s a truth which ideal Beauty has cloaked for centuries, then effectively obliterated in popular culture of the 21st Century. At base we are all flesh, magnified in Saville’s adept handling of oils, pastel and charcoal, with all the discomfort and fragility which attends mortality.

Propped (1992, Oil on canvas, 213.4 x 182.9 cm. To be shown with mirror opposite) looks the male dominated figurative tradition in Art, society and within the Glasgow School of Art right in the eye. Perched atop a stool, a naked female figure with huge, foreshortened thighs and knees closest to the viewer, gazes down, sizing us up with a sneer, her raw hands clawed in tension. The model’s white shoed feet are crossed over, anchoring her frame to the thrust and elevation of the artist’s vision. What should feel precarious isn’t, she commands the composition and across it, written backwards, read in the mirror opposite as part of the painting, are the words of French Feminist writer Luce Irigaray;

“If we continue to speak in this sameness- speak as men have spoken for centuries, we fail each other Again words will pass through our bodies, above our heads- disappear, make us disappear…”

JENNY SAVILLE
Trace, 1993 – 1994
Oil on canvas, 213.4 x 182.9 cm
© Jenny Saville.
Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian.

Wedged between the painting and mirrored confrontation, the immense physicality of this disappearance becomes present in the room as idea and experience, written on one’s own body in everyday life. It is only in looking by default at ourselves that the words become visible. Behind this mirror, at the entrance to this first room, is Trace (1993 – 1994, Oil on canvas, 213.4 x 182.9 cm. Collection of Larry Gagosian), a sobering acknowledgement from neck to buttocks, viewed from behind. Although the palms are flat they feel psychologically twisted, facing the viewer like those of a prisoner in a lineup. The exposure of pale skin, nuanced with greys, ochre, blue, umber and crimson, is painfully incised with the marks of underwear, imprinted on the skin. The cool, serene flesh-toned palette fills the canvas and the mind like a question. We’re faced with where we stand in this branding, then we step behind the painting to the Propped mirror and see. The way the exhibition is hung, cleverly places the viewer in direct relation to the work in this room. The space between Propped and the self-reflexive surface of the mirror is relatively neat, so you can’t stand back to distance yourself from either. Initially the human figure, expression and attitude, led by Saville’s paint handling draws you in, then you turn a perceptive corner and come face to face with the mirror, your own body and yourself. It’s a powerful mechanism of interrogation that perceptively creeps up on you before you know it, like all great art should.

Witness (2009, Oil on canvas, 270 × 219.4 × 6.4 cm. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, USA) places a magnified young face, with the mouth exploded in a vertical position, so that the viewer becomes witness. Saville commented: “It was tough going to push beyond the surface horror into the paint.” Unlike a crime scene/ forensic photograph of documentation, the statement here is a document of the human mark in deep cadmium, alizarin and burnt umber, the stark, peachy pale skin magnifying vulnerability. Saville goes beyond gore into the nature of flesh made human. Even in this context, she fills the viewer with wonder in every mark, as bodies disappear and emerge in relative abstraction. Muse (2012 – 2014, Charcoal on canvas. Unframed: 212 x 170.4 x 3.2cm, Private collection) is a particularly beautiful example, where the deconstruction of form and idea reconstructs the self with force, passion and determination. You gain a sense of Saville’s artistic discipline, intense curiosity and driven process in this show and it’s awe inspiring! Crucially, unlike at lot of other YBAs, her approach to her subject transcends the marketable artist/ celebrity persona- her work is simply about bigger stuff in action and vision. She is resoundingly her own muse in a way that truly inspires.

When painting on the monumental scale of Fulcrum (1998 – 1999, Oil on canvas, 261.6 x 487.7 cm. Collection of Larry Gagosian) there is no option other than to use your whole self to make the marks, like the honed work of a dancer. The physicality lies not just in the three ample female figures, wound together but in the act of painting. The superb handling of this expansive palette of flesh, sliced vertically with fragments of crimson, as if the surface of the canvas were itself flesh and blood, is startlingly real. It is also deeply meditative, with each model held in their own unique world of expression. The fulcrum in this work, the movement used to move or raise something, is the artist’s whole self and contemplation of what it is to be human. How else do we enact change but creatively, imaginatively- as individuals and as a species?

JENNY SAVILLE
One out of two (symposium), 2016
Charcoal and pastel on canvas, 152 x 225 x 3.2 cm
© Jenny Saville.
Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian.
Photo: Mike Bruce

One of my favourite images in the exhibition is One out of two (symposium) (2016, Charcoal and pastel on canvas, 152 x 225 x 3.2cm), a wonderfully ambiguous act of erasure and visibility. As a fluid, layered drawing the alizarin crimson graffiti-like marks, merge with the tracery of a forensic outline and the deconstructed works of old masters. The feminine in this work lies in the grace and repose of head and shoulders, the still core of facial expression, sculpted in chiaroscuro and the sensuous movement, hands clasped around backs that surrounds and absorbs the subject and viewer. Although Saville is often mentioned in the same breath as Bacon and Freud- the stated connection simply being fleshiness, there is a powerful philosophical dialogue that resides in her work, in this painting drawn from Plato’s Symposium, consistent with an ancient tradition of essential thought and debate. Although Saville treats paint as “liquid flesh” the undeniable “viscosity”, the internal tension or friction of the material, isn’t merely physical, but intellectual, psychological and emotional. To be a conscious human being, you can’t not experience internal viscosity being mind and flesh, even more so when the politics of gender or aesthetics of Beauty are applied to the body. Saville’s approach to the female body, unlike so many male artists and critics, isn’t just about masses of flesh. Saville is more holistic and therefore even more confrontational in the context of our 21st century globalised worship of appearance. To write about her work in terms of one dimensional physicality is to miss the point entirely, because to do so, as the artist suggests in “Propped” is to make ourselves disappear.

JENNY SAVILLE
Olympia, 2013 – 2014
Charcoal and oil on canvas, 217 x 290 cm
© Jenny Saville.
Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

Taking Art History by the throat and shaking it is Saville’s Olympia (2013 – 2014, Charcoal and oil on canvas, 217 x 290 cm). The artist is too visually literate for this painting not to bear a link with Manet’s much celebrated reclining nude of the same title; a prostitute attended by a black servant bearing flowers- presumably from a client, with an arched backed black cat at her feet. When it was first shown in 1865 the confrontational stare of the female protagonist, provocatively commanding the composition, was considered shocking. The nude, though arranged for a male gaze, becomes self-possessed in this work and that sense becomes highly evolved in Saville’s coupling of black and white flesh, with fragments of cityscape in the background. The female figure in this work is absorbed in her own thoughts, whilst her lover’s embrace (which could be male or female, depending on audience projection) forms part of a whole series of question marks. Despite the sensuous energy of form and mark, these aren’t bodies served up for salacious gratification. Saville’s middle-aged Olympia is mindfully present and beautiful, in the same manner as the artist’s symposium paintings, here with a downturned mouth suggestive of thought rather than naked pleasure, passion or possession. Multiple realities are actively embraced by the artist and possession on all levels resisted, turning the entire history of Western Art effectively on its head and prompting a broad smile on my face as I exited this final room. What I love so much about Saville’s work is the intense care, exploration, intellect, discipline and ambition required to create it, what it gives to the viewer and to the world. Saville is more of a trailblazer than she has yet been acknowledged for and I hope that this show will begin to address that publicly. NOW could not be more vital or timely in that respect.

Whilst Saville’s work is the centrepiece of the NOW exhibition 2018, works by Markus Schinwald, Christine Borland and adjacent work from the National Galleries of Scotland collection, including photography by Francesca Woodman (1958-1981), also provided great stimulus for thought.

MARKUS SCHINWALD
Orient, 2011
HD video,9 min, loop
Camera: Sebastian Pfaffenbichler;
Production: Close up, Vienna;
Produced by Georg Kargl Fine Arts, Wien; Yvon Lambert, Paris; and Gió Marconi, Milan
© the artist.

Austrian artist Markus Schinwald’s fascinating two screen video work Orient (2011, Looped, two channel HD video 09:00 min. each, colour, sound) reminded me of Pina Bausch’s choreography with its everyday immediacy, potently considered gestures and emotional punch. It is the first time that this work, originally created for the Austrian Pavillion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, has been shown in Scotland. Set in the monumental ruins of an industrial space, the doubled intersection of images, movement and bodily gestures, together with two different voiceovers create a free associative experience for the viewer/ participant. The relationships between a group of well-dressed men and women, moving in unison, individually or paired in observance of each other are, completely compelling as performance, accented with slapstick humour and irony. There are also moments of pure poetry written with the body; tap dancing feet in a sea of colourful, discarded circuitry wires, a man awkwardly scaling a door of opaque glass with a young woman walking straight through it a subversive moment later or a man with his leg caught between two giant structures of concrete trying to wrestle himself free. How we orient ourselves in time, space and in relation to each other is part of the eternal loop and I loved the way that each time I watched Schinwald’s split screens, new combinations of sound and image stimulated different streams of association.  The way the artist splits and reassembles the collective psychology of being human provoked my curiosity and I was thoroughly taken by the mindful calculation and seeming randomness of this work.

CHRISTINE BORLAND
Positive Pattern,2016
Milling foam, Perspex, MDF, paint, five parts
Number 2 in an edition of 3
© Christine Borland, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Purchased with the Ian Paul Fund 2017. Commissioned by the Institute of Transplantation, Newcastle.

Christine Borland’s Positive Pattern (2016. Foam, Perspex, MDF, paint. No2 edition of 3), five abstract objects modelled on the spaces within Barabara Hepworth sculptures were created using 3D scanning and CNC router technology. The intriguing combination of Science and Art, originally commissioned by the Institute of Transplantation, Newcastle to honour organ donors and their families, is aligned with the viewer’s own body and internal organs according to plinth height. Because I have a reviewing policy of not reading any explanatory labelling/ text before looking at visual work, what struck me initially was the ambiguity of material. Housed in Perspex boxes it had the solidity of carved limestone, but the texture was too fine, implying a more delicate substance. The forms themselves were beautiful, hovering in an imaginative space between the organic and human-made, like macquettes in a stage of becoming. The presentation and grouping of objects felt clinical, collectively poised, flowing in energy yet isolated at various levels and confined in their cases.

The problem I often find in appreciating Borland’s work, is that reading an adjacent exploratory text is made necessary by the maker. The human element in Borland’s art is predominantly the linking of ideas, rather than empathy and it tends to leave me cold, even though I find the work interesting and aesthetically beautiful in its stylistic cleanliness. The beauty here really lies in the cavity of Hepworth’s head, her humane approach and thinking as a sculptor, appropriated by Borland. This isn’t a criticism, more an observation of the skilful way Borland handles commissions, successfully negotiating the worlds of contemporary art and medicine. The specificity of commissioned / public works of art is such that she doesn’t always transcend that directive when work is shown out with its original context. My feeling is that Borland’s real talent is alignment of ideas rather than making art. Although this creates a Positive Pattern overall, it lacks soul. Visually there’s a glimmer of feeling, which if you’re keen you pursue, but the primary conduit of meaning is often written context which goes with the territory, rather than extending or exploding it- in the artist’s practice and in terms of viewer perception. Whist Borland’s cleverness can be impressive, it isn’t enduring when placed in the same exhibition as an artist like Saville.

Also included in the exhibition are four painted metal sculptures and wall-based works by Sara Barker, influenced by writers Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing and Jeanette Winterson. Barker combines drawing, painting, sculpture and collage rather self-consciously to “investigate the act of making”. The compartmentalisation and dreamy palette of the artist’s triptych, 3 fabric figures on the Heath changes the sky (2017, automotive paint, folded aluminium, stainless steel rod, perspex, 180 x 240 x 28 cm) is a bit too obvious in making the viewer aware of facets of seeing, with a painterly nod to the Bloomsbury group. Again, interesting ideas are in play in this work; “figuration, edges and borders of our bodies, experience and landscapes creating portals that open up a space for reflective thought” but they are essentially derivative, I don’t get a sense of Barker’s stance towards these concepts or the nature of her investigation other than quotation. It’s illustrative understanding of ideas compared to the depth of understanding of the human condition absorbed, experienced and communicated by Saville. Robin Rhodes’ homage to Muybridge had a similar impact on me and Catherine Street’s work felt underdeveloped in its exploration and execution. Admittedly when you have such a strong backbone to a show it’s hard to equal it, conversely a great show will display equal artistic muscle despite exhibiting diverse bodies of work. Saville’s new work Aleppo for example, currently on display between two Titian’s at the Scottish National Gallery on The Mound, stands up all by itself in juxtaposition. Here is NOW you might say.

JENNY SAVILLE
Red Stare Head IV, 2006 – 2011
Oil on canvas, 252 x 187.5cm
Private collection © Jenny Saville.
Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

I would urge anyone with an interest in humanity to visit this exhibition. You’re unlikely to see all 17 Saville works, drawn from private and public collections across the globe, altogether elsewhere.  The paint handling and scale are incredible, in ways that don’t translate in reproduction and the artist’s insight is truly profound.  However, if you can’t make it to Edinburgh and live further South, Saville’s work can also be seen as part of the All Too Human show at Tate Britain until 27th August 2018, in the company of 20 figurative artists including Francis Bacon, Paula Rego, Lucien Freud, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossof, Euan Uglow, Walter Sickert and David Bomberg. A great accompaniment to both shows is the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art broadcast interview with Saville as part of the NOW exhibition (link below). Hearing the artist speak about her work is as much of a privilege as seeing it, a rare quality both sides of the equation for a branded YBA! Figurative art and the discipline of painting are far from being dead.

Jenny Saville in conversation. National Gallery of Scotland Streamed live on 23 Mar 2018 You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2NQZ5ggYJQ

nationalgalleries.org
#ModernNOW

15th Inverness Film Festival

November Directed by Rainer Sarnet

8-12 November, Eden Court Cinemas

“Film was born of an explosive.” Bill Morrison, Dawson City: Frozen Time

Over the last decade Inverness Film Festival has become a primary source of inspiration and discovery in the UK cultural calendar. It’s a festival that shows me the world within worlds, where the curation is exceptional and my only regret in taking time off to be there is not being able to watch all of it!  This year’s IFF Audience Award went to The Disaster Artist, directed and starring James Franco. In second place was Nicolas Vanier’s School of Life, screened in association with the French Film Festival UK, and in third place Just Charlie, one of the debut selection of films chosen by the Eden Court Young Programmer’s group. I saw none of the above, but with over 60 screenings and events over 4 days and 5 nights, tough choices had to be made! As usual I gravitated towards the more obscure, because for me that’s what film festivals are for- exposure to World Cinema of all ages that you’re unlikely see anywhere else. This year’s highlights were many and varied, but they all had their own spark of ignition in altering my perception. Each of them in their own way reminded me of what I value most in cinema as a medium for expanded awareness and potential change. I very much hope that all of these remarkable films will be picked up by other festivals and distributors, so that many more people in the UK and beyond will have the chance to see them.

Dede Directed by Mariam Khatchvani

The Scottish premiere of Director Mariam Khatchvani’s Dede brought the audience face to face with the question of cultural traditions, “those we need to carry forward and others which need to be left behind”. The story on one level is deeply personal and intimately connected to the filmmaker’s family history, but it is also universal in its themes of gender equality, personal freedom, self-determination and human rights.  The film is set in a truly breath-taking landscape of cultural and historical convergence, filmed in the UNESCO heritage site of Svaneti, Georgia, within the southern Greater Caucasus mountain range, bordering with Russia. There’s a powerful sense that the “Mother” of the translated title is present in these mountains. Images of human scale in relation to Nature suggest alternative ways of perceiving and honouring power, contrary to traditional, patriarchal structures of dominance and control. The film follows the story of Dina, a young woman who courageously resists a forced marriage and the will of her male elders to elope with the man she loves. However, her rightful pursuit of happiness comes at enormous personal cost, in a community governed by masculine pride and entitlement, played out in vengeful blood feuds.  As the audience discovered during the post-screening Q&A with Assistant Director and Casting Director Tamar Khatchvani, although bride kidnapping is no longer practised, the film is based on a true story from the not so distant past. As result there is a real sense of experience within living memory, translated in the very natural performances of the entire cast of non-actors. Everyone on screen is from the same village and as the region has opened to tourism, there have been cultural gains and losses for everyone involved.

The Scottish premiere of EXLIBRIS: New York City Public Library, provides an extensive view of this community orientated organisation and its wide-ranging activities. Directed by honorary Oscar winner and documentarian Frederick Wiseman, the film highlights inequality in contemporary America and the wider world. Rather than being a repository for books, it is a network of learning centres providing after school support, free access to the internet for thousands of citizens who cannot afford it, literacy and maths classes, English classes for immigrants, public discussions with authors, music concerts and performance poetry readings. The range and scope of activity is staggering. In many ways the library is spearheading the city’s response to social problems created by people falling through the cracks of government policy, or being left behind by an ever changing technologically driven world. At 197 mins long, it is an epic by mainstream feature documentary standards, but the wider implications of the link between knowledge, power and politics justify the exploration. Exposing universal social problems and working towards solutions through educational empowerment, both the library and the film are a means advocacy for the most vulnerable in society. Within the NYCPL collections are the words, actions and images of ancestors, leaders and artists, providing inspiration for new creative work and a space for reflection, thought and connection. It is a shame that many libraries in the UK that have been closed or are threatened with closure could not be perceived and utilised in such a vital way- as invaluable, enriching and ultimately money saving community resources.

Happy End Directed by Michael Haneke

Michael Haneke’s new film Happy End, nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and starring Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Mathieu Kassovitz and Toby Jones, places a self-absorbed bourgeois family under the microscope. In typical Haneke fashion there’s gallows humour, the disquieting exposure of uncomfortable truths and familial disfunction, run through with the family’s total blindness to the refugee crisis unfolding in their home city of Calais. It’s a film revealing respectable middle-class indifference to the suffering of others and the luxury of pursing a Happy End in life and death. An even more extreme vision of family life came in the form of IFF’s preview screening of The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth 2009, Alps 2011 and The Lobster 2015) has made a career out of eviscerating the traditional family unit, middle class respectability, aspirations and patriarchal power. Lanthimos excels in cinematic immersion, creating highly critical microcosms aided by his regular collaborator, cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis. The opening scene in close up of open heart surgery, with its bloody exposure of flesh juxtaposed with swathes of cold blue, sets the emotional and intellectual tone of this powerful revenge thriller. The cast including Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell and Barry Keoghan are excellent, ably communicating the horror, absurdity and hypocrisy of a contemporary, upwardly mobile family, with its roots firmly planted in Greek tragedy. The visuals and sound design, from the classical exposition to increasingly visceral, blended sound effects, is highly effective in placing the viewer in a progressive state of unease. As we discover what lies at the heart of the characters, the veneer of the perfect family unit starts to dissolve. Notions of professional success, wealth and power are scraped at like bone until it shatters, transforming the story into a parable of the human soul. Teenage boy Martin’s (Koeghan) eye for an eye demand for justice from Farrell’s passionless, negligent surgeon gathers the momentum of a pact. True to form Lanthimos puts the morality, ethics, loyalty, family bonds of his characters and the very fabric of society to the test. In many ways Martin is a willful agent of chaos, much like the Devil himself in banal, seemingly innocuous contemporary dress. Whether you like or loathe Lanthimos’s vision, I guarantee you will be thinking about The Killing of a Sacred Deer long after you’ve seen it.

Dark River by Director Clio Bernard

The alternative opening night double bill of Dark River and Loveless (Nelyubov) delivered an incredibly strong first night. In Dark River UK director Clio Bernard (The Arbor, The Selfish Giant) creates a world where human emotion and the natural world are essentially entwined.  Ruth Wilson’s central performance carries the film, bringing tremendous strength, vulnerability and subtlety to a character she inhabits completely. Following a 15-year absence and the death of her Father (Sean Bean), Alice’s return to the failing family farm triggers confrontation with an undertow of memory and with her volatile brother Joe (Mark Stanley). Bernard brings a real physicality to the experience of memory, carried in the body, effectively using sound design, elements of the countryside and flashbacks to humanely lay the familial backstory bare. She submerges the viewer in Alice’s lived experience, suspended in the cold, dark water of the swimming hole, buried in the deep, layered earth of the rain cleansed Yorkshire Moors and in knife-edged moments of conflict inside the emotional rabbit warren of the family home. As a filmmaker she’s a Master of the great unsaid, handling the most insidious of emotions, guilt and shame, with empathy, skill and compassion. It’s a film about betrayal of the worst kind, the pure bond between siblings and the fragility of rural life in decline. Although the plot does become a little stretched by the end of the film, it’s an impressive addition to Bernard’s work, cementing her status as an emerging voice in British Cinema.

Loveless (Nelyubov) Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan was one of my favourite films at IFF 2014, so I had very high hopes for the director’s latest release Loveless (Nelyubov). The film has won several awards on the European festival circuit already, including the 2017 Jury Prize at Cannes, Best Film at the London Film Festival and Best International Film at the Munich Film Festival. The global scope, sheer artistry and potent relevance of this film exceeded all my expectations. Loveless is an eloquent, gut wrenching and highly observant film, examining the microcosm of a family splitting apart. It is also a reflection of increasing political, social and class divisions within Ukraine, a history of conflict and invasion from “Mother” Russia and indicative of a wider global crisis. Entrenched in the territorial battleground of a bitter divorce, Boris (Aleksey Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) are instantly unlikeable characters, narcissistic, petty, spiteful and utterly indifferent to the child they have together. Their primary concern is injuring each other and tending their own needs. Still cohabiting while they try to sell their apartment, the tension and fighting escalate, with their 13-year-old son Alyosha caught between his parents, neither of whom want him. Despite their relatively comfortable lives and upwardly mobile status, their cruel behavior immediately calls into question the idea of advantage and their ability to nurture anything. Although they have seemingly moved on with different partners, whenever we see scenes of intimacy they are driven to negation by selfishness, insecurity, neediness and immaturity. This is visibly compounded by the reliance on self-validation through technology as part of the whole, relentless drive of getting ahead. During the film our sympathy shifts as we are shown that this isn’t because they are inherently bad people. As we see when we meet Zhenya’s annihilating Mother, generations of enforced conformity, the rigidity of church and dictatorial state control have also had a significant role to play in creating a collective state of misery, unrealised and unrecognized human potential.  The infiltration of Western capitalist values, widening economic divide between rich and poor and pitching the false dream of democracy as the freedom to buy things is just as emotionally hollow. Both Boris and Zheyna resent their life choices and blame each other for them, but having never learnt to love or be loved they remain in a childlike, reactive state, unable to grow.

However, the most urgent casualty in this disintegrating marriage is their son and the upcoming generation he represents. As his parents abdicate responsibility in earshot, loudly negating his existence as nothing but an inconvenient mistake, he seeks refuge in a woodland near their apartment block. There is a real sense in these natural images, becoming progressively colder and emotively snowbound, of Nature bearing witness to the unfolding human drama. The camera lingers in the hollows of trees and the earth like it is searching for an answer, not just to the boy’s disappearance but to the loss of self, identity and purpose in life.  Although he has little screen time, Matvey Novikov’s performance as Alyosha is heartbreaking, exemplified in his physical and mental anguish in a brief scene where his mother storms into the bathroom following an argument, not even registering that he’s been right there, the whole time, absorbing every poisonous, self-depreciating word. Although it is a bleak vision of human relationships, diminished capacity and 21st Century empathy deficit, the ambiguity of Alyosha’s disappearance and the small army of dedicated volunteers, who have no self interest in trying to find him, is a definite ray of hope. There is a sense of mobilisation in this group of people, who witnessing the all too common occurrence of children running away or going missing, step in when the police/ state fails to find them. We see compassionate, practical action as a counterfoil to the useless blind cult of “What about ME?!” in a crisis, seen in Boris’s pregnant girlfriend’s reaction to him prioritising finding his missing child above spending time with her. She’s yet another adult nowhere near being emotionally developed enough to support the child she’s carrying. We sense that seeking love and self-worth through vanity, shopping, social status and endless selfies will be what is passed on to the next generation, together with an empty hole in the heart that all those things, including having a child, are attempting to fill. I loved the honesty, tenacity and vision of this film in acknowledging what is a global/ psychological crisis of lovelessness. The film may be set in Kiev and center on a single family, but the dynamics of care and its absence are everywhere. This film is a brilliant touchstone to begin to examine and challenge the soul-destroying dominance of the latter. Loveless is a thoughtful, essential film scheduled for wider release in the UK early in 2018.

The Woman He Scorned (1929) Directed by Paul Czinner

Another festival favourite was the little known British Silent Film The Woman He Scorned (1929), also known as The Way of Lost Souls, with a live improvised score by one of the world’s finest Silent Film accompanists, Stephen Horne.  Channelling the film through piano, accordion, flute, Bereney thumb piano and imaginative silence, this was the best possible introduction to a film that I suspect none of the audience (including myself) had seen. What separates Horne from other accompanists is his emotional intelligence, understanding of film as a medium and great skill as a musician. The ability to faithfully serve the story and interpret its characters with care and sensitivity is comparably rare and the audience were treated to a unique performance of the highest calibre. Directed by Paul Czinner and starring Pola Negri, Warwick Ward and Hans Rehmann, the story of a prostitute in a small coastal town and her relationship with a lighthouse keeper was reinterpreted for a contemporary audience in beautifully nuanced and unexpected ways. Although the title and brochure description alluded to puritanical morality and high melodrama, what Horne brought to the film was infinitely subtler, resisting cliché, drawing out the inner psychology of characters and illuminating the complexity, joy and anguish of what it is to be human. At the heart of the film is Pola Negri’s central performance which defies the stereotypical Vamp/ Femme Fatale in its range, a quality amplified with depth and feeling by the accompaniment. The ballsy bravado of Dance Hall solo piano, sharp, sassy Tango on accordion and its descent into chaotic dissonance, articulated beautifully that “the Vamp” is a performance. What we discover as the story unfolds is the heroine’s real vulnerability, due in no small part to how sound informs what we see in the moment. This musical elevation of character, above the narrow moral codes and judgements of the day, enhances our perception that this is a fallible human being we can all relate to. Horne excels at this kind of musical insight, exemplified in his score / live performance of Stella Dallas (1925), commissioned by the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Film in 2016.

In The Woman He Scorned we see a female protagonist trying to take control of her life and rise above dismal circumstances, triggered by a single act of kindness. At base Louise (Negri) is a working girl under the violent control of her pimp and the ever-present threat of destitution, a pariah in the eyes of society. Although John (Rehmann) first judges and rejects her, he later intervenes on her behalf and then takes her in, in an act framed in his mind as Christian charity. Louise’s attempts to navigate care and kindness she’s never been shown before and escape her past are incredibly poignant, heightened by the instrumentation. As she starts to take her place in village life, these first fragile steps of acceptance are communicated in all their delicacy by the ethereal sound of the flute. She metaphorically removes her makeup, beholds herself in the mirror and begins to see herself differently. The musical interpretation of the scene articulates how vulnerable she is in that tentative, blossoming sound, created with life’s breath. Horne’s accompaniment succeeds in portraying the character rising above societal/ biblical branding of a “whore”, which the character herself has taken on board and musically frees her soul before our eyes. This audience investment in the central character intensifies the drama and emotional impact of what follows. We are not just watching, but feeling the character’s predicament, internalised through the immediacy of sound. We want John to believe Louise because we have come to believe in her, with no persuasion through spoken dialogue at all. What we experience as a contemporary audience isn’t Silent Film as a historical relic, but as a living, breathing, universal artform that crosses all borders of culture and language. In establishing that timeless connection with such consummate skill, you really could not ask for more from a live cinema experience.

The variety of sound and pairing of instruments in Horne’s performances are always a source of surprise and discovery. Instruments are often played simultaneously, one in each hand, and in this performance the isolated use of human voice, a sampled element introduced from the original film soundtrack, brought past and present together.  Fully embracing the cut to a mesmerising sequence of suspended time in the wedding scene, the strange, percussive echo of the thumb harp created a hollow for the audience’s imagination to fill. The full sonic range of instruments from the interior strings of the piano to the otherworldly sound of the thumb harp, half way between dreaming and waking have a spatial quality, together with a sense of fluidity and movement. This is both physical and psychological, from the deep undertow of ocean waves, to the intimacy of John soothing Louise by stroking her hair, the accompaniment brought the audience closer to emotional core of each scene. The beauty of the Silent Film accompanist’s Art ultimately lies in being faithful to every compositional frame experienced in real time and achieving a state altered perception in the half light of the flicker, energy which translates directly to the audience’s live experience. It’s the difference between performing music on top a film and living it, both for the artist and the audience. As John stands on the shore in the final frames, sound divides like shards, mirrored by the accompanist’s hands physically divided between the upper and lower register of the piano. In that building temple of sound and consciousness we understand what has been lost, not just in terms of the individual character, but in the context of human judgement. Like the folkloric suggestion of drowned human souls, seen in the flock of gulls hovering over the sea in the very last frame, The Way of Lost Souls is collectively ours. The level of communication achieved with music and moving images as equal partners, created something truly magical and transformative, as only a live cinema experience in the hands of a master accompanist can.

78 / 52 Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe

Following his illustrated talk, the Last Silent Picture Show, Geoff Brown introduced The Woman He Scorned in the context of the British film industry circa 1929, during the changeover from Silent Film to Sound. Brown’s talk also gave valuable insight into Alfred Hitchcock’s development as a director in his discussion of the Silent and early sound versions of Blackmail (1929).  As an important precursor to the director’s mature work, Brown’s talk also had relevance to the screening of Director Alexandre O. Philippe’s 78 / 52.  This fantastic documentary explores one of the most revolutionary scenes in cinema history on multitude of levels. Breaking down the set ups and cuts in Hitchcock’s shower scene from Psycho (1960) might sound like the preserve of film students and cinema nerds, but there is infinitely more at work in Hitchcock’s films than just technique. 78/ 52 honors and celebrates that genre defining richness. At the heart of it all is Hitchcock the flawed human being, shaped by Victorian values, Catholic morality and his vision of a cruelly indifferent God, becoming the hand of the director. Today we take the crafting of suspense on film totally for granted as part of mainstream Popular Culture, so much so that it has become parody. What I loved about this film were the different perspectives on this watershed moment in cinema, the profound effect it had on audiences at the time and how it still affects and inspires filmmaking today. Even more than that, it made me want to watch the original film again, igniting the hope that post Scream franchise generations will perhaps find their way back to the original “master of suspense.”

Significantly Hitchcock cut his directorial teeth in the Silent Era and who he was is expressed in interesting ways through his films. 78/52 touches on his personal obsessions, the critical and competitive nature of his work and the wider political, social and cultural landscape of 1950’s and early 60’s America. Whilst it is an analytical film and we hear from many professional filmmakers, it is also a film about the psychology of fear, which in an age of the Trump administration feels particularly ripe for exploration. Psycho is a deeply subversive film on multiple levels and this documentary is a timely reminder of the value of artistic subversion. Made “in defiance of Hollywood” and its code of censorship, Hitchcock kills off the box office gold leading lady early, invades the sanctity and safety domesticity and transforms the concept of “Mother” into something truly monstrous, reflecting that which is carried within. Psycho also represents, as Director/ Interviewee Peter Bogdonovich points out, “the first time” that the naked “female body comes under attack” likening the effect of watching the film to an act of rape. It’s debatable whether a contemporary audience, saturated with images of violence to the point of anesthesia, can really appreciate the true Horror the film engendered, lessening the revolutionary nature of that moment. At the time of release people were viscerally screaming in shock, something I have yet to see in a contemporary cinema. Like Hitchcock’s “bomb under the table” analogy, we should never confuse a simple cinematic explosion wired for entertainment with the heightened anticipation of being told a bomb is going to go off, effectively placing the audience in the position of waiting for the inevitable. Hitchcock sets the audience up for confrontation with their own sense of death or punishment. His refined craft of suspense is a devilish, manipulative art and the “order and chaos” of that “magic act” is something Hitchcock understood completely. As an agent of the darker sides of human nature he is an extremely interesting director whose work will always have primal resonance. As the documentary commentary points out, he plays with audience expectation and makes us work, imagination infilling what we think we see projected on screen. The genius of the shower scene in Psycho in breaking rules, aligning natural sound, music, image and point of view remains breathtaking, affirming what a beautiful, terrible thing the human mind can be.

Dawson City: Frozen Time Directed by Bill Morrison

Director Bill Morrison has a gift for transforming fragmentary archival material into visual poetry. In Decasia (2002) Morrison created a celebratory Memento Mori, crafting decaying film stock into a mesmerising, meditative vision of humanity attempting to outlive itself through Art. The purity of moving images and a symphonic score, with viewers free to make their own associations, was not only refreshing in its use of raw material, but created a sense of sublime beauty in physical decay. Our essential connection to highly fragile, combustible celluloid nitrate is explored on multiple levels in his extraordinarily moving latest film Dawson City: Frozen Time which had its Scottish premiere screening at IFF. Here Morrison moves into more mainstream documentary territory, with commentary delivered entirely in text form rather than voiceover. As in all great Silent storytelling, he creates connective space between the lines for the viewer’s mind to inhabit, exploring different thematic threads on their own terms. This is a film about the memory, history and dreams held in each precious frame of film as lived experience, memorial and portal. This documentary feels very timely in an age where technological progress increasingly urges us as a society to shed the old and embrace the new via the latest upgrade. The question of what we conserve, what we lose, who makes that decision (if it is even conscious) and why, in relation to the back catalogue of World Cinema, has barely been considered. The fact remains that film is still the most tangible, stable material we have, nobody has invented a means of digital storage that equals it in terms of conservation. Morrison subtly reflects that truth in a world that urgently needs to take stock of itself and reveals that film is the very stuff we are made of in the process.

The story of 533 nitrate film prints dating from the 1910s – 1920s discovered in 1978, buried as landfill beneath an ice hockey rink, encompasses forces at work in the wider world today that have never been more urgently relevant. The history of Dawson city as a Klondike Gold Rush town is about human displacement, the decimation and endurance of First Nations cultures, the rise of capitalism becoming corporate rule by the few, the destruction of the environment for profit and the perpetual lie that Film is, like everything else in 21st Century life is simply disposable, consumable entertainment. As the last stop on the distribution circuit and with distributors avoiding the expense of transporting out of date films back to their place of origin, films in Dawson were first stock piled under the administration of bankers. When storage ran out they were then destroyed, thrown into the Yukon River, burnt or buried, painfully echoing the wider estimate that of all the Silent Films ever created, Humanity has lost 75% of them. However, this isn’t a film that preaches, the intention and craft behind it is seeing the bigger picture and extracting the metal. Morrison is all about seeing the debris and the entire landscape from above, within and below the winter permafrost we’re currently living through.  As such he is an important documentarian of our age. Dawson City: Frozen Time achieves universality in the crafting of images, the spark and substance of what it means to make things, to out create destruction.

Dawson City: Frozen Time Directed by Bill Morrison

The origins of film as an explosive material is a powerful metaphor and like the emotional aesthetic of Decasia, it is a double-edged sword as the truth often is. Significantly, film’s most profoundly moving and overwhelming moments are pure Silent sound and image. The morphing of Chief Issac’s face from that of an intensely proud, self-possessed young man, to an aged figure, eroded by exploitation expands into conscious awareness. Morrison is telling us nothing and showing us everything in that moment. In tantalising fragments of films we will never see in their entirety, countless archive photographs, faces and lives, many stories are woven together. The haunting closeup of Mary MacLaren in Bread (1918) directed by Ida May Park is a glimpse into many hidden histories. Through cinema Dawsonites saw the world, in a place that today appears as a last stop before wilderness and oblivion. The fortunes of a town which was born at the same time as the new media of photography and cinema, heralding the start of a modern age, is an excellent place to dig for what sustains and allows us to endure.

Although there were sequences when Alex Somers’ score felt repetitive and overbearing, the music connects emotionally with the imagery, evoking ghostly presences and the physicality of decay. The slowed tempo of human voices and strings operate like something holding on in the present tense of sound hitting the ear and not wanting to let go. The use of organ as an underpinning lament fading into recorded time and distant, echoing piano feel half submerged in the subconscious. There’s real pain in the ebb and flow of human fortunes and in the fate of discarded, abandoned material Culture. This is found footage filmmaking at a whole new level, over and above simple appropriation. As Writer, Editor and Director, Morrison brilliantly combines fragments of rare silent films, newsreels, archival footage, interviews and photographs, including Eric Hegg’s glass plate images which are a survival story in and of themselves. The final sequence of Dawson City: Frozen Time will be etched in my mind forever. Like “the salamander of the ancients [that] lived through fire unscathed”, everything which burns is not extinguished. We see a hand reaching out of the fluttering erasure of emulsion and a dancer, her head and eyes covered, unfurling her scarf in the flicker of free movement, hands raised, claiming and claimed by light. It’s a gesture that feels miraculous and far reaching in terms of human aspiration. It reflects the light, dreams and dust we are as human beings. Kinolorber’s description of the film as a “meditation on cinema’s past” really feels like an inadequate summation because like a lot of other Silent Film publicity it ignores the film’s universal thematic content. Like the image of Mae Marsh in Polly of the Circus (1917) in Morrison’s final sequence, this film is an awakening. Taking its cues and inspiration from original film stock, marked by human actions, neglected and resurrected in a different form, personal and collective loss is acknowledged in a film which is conclusively hopeful. I felt overwhelmed and enriched by watching it and as soon as the credits rolled, I wanted to watch it again.

November Directed by Rainer Sarnet

Another film of extraordinary beauty, artistry and substance is Rainer Sarnet’s November, based on the bestselling Estonian novel Rehepapp by Andrus Kivirähk, starring Rea Lest, Jörgen Liik and Arvo Kukumägi. Films like this one are the reason I go to film festivals! I hope that this Scottish premiere at IFF will be picked up by other film festivals and distributors so that many more people will have the opportunity to see it. Dredging the collective unconscious, Pagan and Christian mythologies are entwined with Estonian Folklore in this creatively striking, thoroughly immersive film. November is possessed of its own fluid logic and this dreamlike narrative is so visually stunning that you cannot help but surrender to it. Director Rainer Sarnet has created something captivatingly strange and magical. It’s a world cast between the physical and metaphysical, where the fantastical and irrational exist side by side with the hard, everyday grind of life, the reality of political oppression and centuries of class rule. True to Eastern European cinematic traditions of escape into fiction and fairy tale, masking social criticism, political and religious dissent, November is all about the human truth in fiction. At base it is a story of human yearning and unrequited love. Laced with black humour, national pride, observance of superstition, ignorance, greed and betrayal, this is a different kind of fantasy, grounded with roots that run deep within the human psyche.  In many ways it reclaims the primal forest from which all storytelling springs- some of the richest creative soil there is! Although I’m certain that there are many specific Estonian references lost on me and UK audiences in general, there are enough archetypal elements in this black and white vision of the living and the dead, found in cultures all over the world, which translate visually. In that respect November’s Director of photography, Mart Taniel was a very worthy winner of Best Cinematography in an International Narrative Feature Film at the Tribeca Film Festival. The Jury comment about their decision that “one film was particularly audacious and showed supreme command of its visual language” is a very accurate assessment of the film.

November depicts “an ancient land” “where spirits roam”, a world frozen in solarised light and the deepest of shadows.  Villagers create creatures called Kratts out of discarded wood, farm machinery and domestic debris, who serve them in exchange for souls. A young woman Lina is in love with village boy Hans, but he is obsessed with the baron’s beautiful daughter. In the emotional context of unrequited love Lina turning into a wolf, metaphorically consumed by her emotions, inner drives, needs and desires, isn’t nearly as crazy as it sounds. On the contrary, it’s a very apt manifestation of what the character is feeling and part of her journey, albeit in canine form. That felt sense, grounding what might appear at first glance as fantasy, is one of the most powerful elements of the film and there are many moments of human recognition throughout. The sequence where the cart and funeral procession cross and pass each other in the stark clarity of black and white is absolute poetry and devastation, as fate separates the living from the dead and a soul is paid for. Beneath its exquisitely crafted, labyrinthine world November suggests, “there is the soul we sell, the soul we long for and the soul we cannot live without”. The question of what human life is worth in alignment with these ideas goes beyond fantastical entertainment. Part of reclaiming our souls is reconnection with this ancient mode of storytelling and the masked wisdom the world has forgotten how to read.

Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat Directed by Fritz Lang

Aligned with the festival screening of new release biopic Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool starring Annette Benning and Jamie Bell, IFF’s superb three film tribute to Gloria Grahame was a definite retrospective highlight. The selection featured her Academy Award winning Best Supporting Actress performance in Vincente Minelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), her starring role as a sharp, sincere and sassy gangster’s dame in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953) and with Humphrey Bogart in the tragic anti-Romance In a Lonely Place (1950). Throughout Grahame demonstrates her stage experience, range and why she deserves to be better known. Hopefully the release of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool will encourage people to seek her out her early film work. There is no device on the planet that can replace or simulate the beauty of black and white restorations on a big screen. IFF, together with the Eden Court Cinema programme generally, is committed to showing as many 35mm format films as it can. In the world of 21st Century cinemas this is a rarity and an absolute pleasure.

It is always exciting to see the work of emerging filmmakers and this year’s selection of short films were incredibly strong, diverse, refreshingly original and brimming with possibility. IFF has consistently championed the work of Scottish filmmakers and this year there were six collections of Short Films including two screenings of international shorts specifically for children. Two films in particular shone as part of the Bridging the Gap showcase in association with the Scottish Documentary Institute. Thomas Hogben’s Teeth (11 mins) cleverly combines archival footage, interviews with the director’s parents, Orthodontist and Dental Anthropologist Dr. Daniel Antoine, in a humorous and revealing story of how teeth express our fears, aspirations and ideals. It also poses important questions about the lengths we go to to try and achieve ideal Beauty. It’s an absorbing and entertaining film, charting the development of child to adult and tapping into the universal human need to belong. Hogben probes insecurities shared by the audience, exposing the horrors and unexpected healing powers of dentistry, with teeth as the mirror of Self.

Directed by Sean Mullen Inhale (15 mins) is an accomplished and sensitive story of family bereavement, grief and transformation from Northern Ireland. Working with horses provides the catalyst for transforming pain and outdoor drone photography is used very eloquently to express the interior life of the subject. Poignant and confessional, this is a film about enduring the loss of those we love and having the courage to let go, knowing that life will never be the same again. Faith is an important aspect of the film, conveyed in the voice of the central protagonist and the belief that “the infinite momentum of life via an energy never destroyed, only transformed.” Whatever your spiritual identity, it is a powerful and moving film. Other Scottish Shorts highlights included Flow Country (10 mins) by Jasper Coppes, beautifully shot using black & white 35mm and winner of Best Scottish Short at the Glasgow Short Film Festival, A Tail of Two Sisters (4 mins) by Lindsay McKee, part of the Edinburgh 48hr Film Project 2017, Selina Wagner’s captivating animation Spindrift (12 mins), Alison Piper’s timely political statement Free Period (6 mins) and Gordon Napier’s 1745 (19 mins) a story which highlights the largely hidden history of Highland slavery.

1745 Directed by Gordon Napier

It’s a great pleasure and a privilege to witness the creative development of local filmmakers over successive years and to see individuals making creative leaps, honing their craft and finding their unique voice. Director Mike Webster screened two films this year Eathie (9mins) and Coire Eilde (11 mins), both following gorge scrambles by Adventure and Wildlife Photographer James Roddie in largely unknown sites in the Highlands.  In the traditionally high-octane field of masculine/ mountain adventure films and festivals, it is refreshing and enlightening to see the process and care taken in approaching each pitch. The expectation of “adventure” is often in the spirit of man conquering the landscape, rather than “venturing into the unknown”. Finding your foothold and being fully conscious of your surroundings, to experience something beyond the everyday in the presence of Nature, is more akin to the idea of Slow Adventure. The idea of Nature as Culture in relation to how we experience the environment is only starting to be explored and there are some seeds of that ethos in Robbie’s descent of the Eathie Gorge on the Black Isle and Coire Eilde (the Pass of the Hinds) in Glencoe. As Roddie and Webster navigate their way into the natural environment, the path created by experience, skill and instinct is inspiring. Drone photography is used very effectively to broaden the viewer’s experience of this territory. It would be great to see more of the interior, psychological aspect of the adventurer in future films, enriching not only the conception of the landscape, but perception of what a masculine point of view in this genre can be. As Roddie states during interview what you really want from an adventure is “obscure” and “intimidating”, heading into an environment where you’re not too sure what you will encounter, equipped with the  tools and self-awareness to find your way through.

Eathie Directed by Mike Webster

The pairing of Webster’s films with those by another local filmmaker, Katrina Brown, were very complimentary in challenging preconceptions and prejudice. It is wonderful to see such a progressive leap in the space between IFF 16 and 17 in the screening of Brown’s two most recent projects, Woman Up (3 mins) and Riding Through the Dark (23 mins). Her natural ability to tackle difficult subjects, based on the trust established with interviewees and participants is a great strength for any documentarian. Making the voice of the subject the primary focus of the film and being led by it clearly drives her vision as a filmmaker. This authenticity aligned with stories that need to be told is a very promising and valuable combination. In Woman Up the stereotype of the “sporty woman” is challenged, following Eilidh, who discovered her passion for mountain biking, together with skills and confidence she didn’t believe she had. That sense of positive empowerment is further developed in Riding Through the Dark. It’s a film that juxtaposes the experiences of two groups of women, “one held in awe” and “the other in stigma”, asking the question of just how different they (and we the audience) really are. The individual stories of a group of elite female cyclists/ athletes and women taking part in a cycling to health and wellbeing programme are woven together and they are extremely honest, courageous and moving. Although the film tackles the issue of mental health and depression head on, it is ultimately hopeful and uplifting.  In revealing the insecurities, loneliness, pain and loss we all share as human beings, Brown and her interviewees shine a light on the possibility of regaining oneself when a safe space can be created, grounded in mutual respect and shared experience. In many ways the film creates that safe space for the audience, doing what cinema does best with the road and the world opening up, gaining understanding and projecting ourselves into the frame as viewers. Riding Through the Dark is also very realistic about the concept of recovery rather than cure. I’m sure that many people seeing the film will strongly identify with it, either in relation to their own experience or that of friends and family. Depression is the absence of hope and in telling their stories these brave women are a shining example of grasping that little bit of something in acute darkness, finding the strength to get back up and to keep going. Using cycling as a coping strategy and a means of being absolutely present in the moment is hugely inspiring, as both groups of women and individuals “create impetus” and “momentum” to move out of darkness, “ignit[ing] [that] passion into everyday life.”

As IFF 2017 drew to a close and I emerged out of the dark, the world appeared a good deal brighter. Outside the cinema it was pitch black and autumn chills, but I was carrying the sparks of everything I’d seen with me. In the cross fertilisation of fiction and documentary there is fire, hope and the possibility of positive change. The world needs imagination and the voices of independent filmmakers as never before, to find the truth, set things alight and make us see the world anew.

http://2017.invernessfilmfestival.com/welcome/

Dreamers Awake

White Cube Bermondsey, London

28 June – 17 September 2017

Jo Anne Callis Untitled (Woman with a Black Line) Archival Pigment Print. ‘From Early Color Portfolio’ Circa 1976 Credit: © Jo Anne Callis, Courtesy of the artist, Rose Gallery and White Cube.

“I warn you- I am not an object” Dorothea Tanning

The prospect of exploring “the enduring influence of Surrealism through the work of more than 50 women artists” filled me with high hopes in terms of repossession of the Feminine and reappraisal of Surrealism in the popular imagination. Art historians have only begun to scratch the surface of female artists written out of the original movement, relegated to roles of lover, wife or muse in the biographies of male artists.  Dreamers Awake features “sculpture, painting, collage, photography and drawing from the 1930’s to the present day” including works by Eileen Agar, Leonora Carrington, Lee Miller, Dorothea Tanning, Leonor Fini, Claude Cahun, Edith Rimmington, Helen Chadwick, Louise Bourgoise, Alina Szapocznikow, Tracy Emin, Sarah Lucas, Carina Brandes, Hayv Kahraman, Eva Kot’átková, Nevine Mahmoud, Penelope Slinger, Shannon Pool, Jo Anne Callis and Julia Phillips. Whilst I welcome and applaud exhibitions bringing marginalised and neglected work by women artists into greater public awareness, this show left me feeling conflicted about the nature of Feminine reclamation, particularly in relation to contemporary art/ life.

Dreamers Awake Exhibition Photograph: George Darrell courtesy of White Cube

One of the problems I had with the exhibition was the overbearing emphasis on the female body, or rather the persistent disconnect between body, mind and the Feminine. On the one hand there’s a challenge to the image of women as objects of “masculine desire and fantasy”, often “decapitated, distorted, trussed up,” “fearsome and fetishized” as “other” in the hands of male Surrealists from the birth of the movement.  Although this “fragmented, headless body of Surrealism” is a “vehicle for irony, resistance, humour” and freedom of expression in the hands of female artists in the exhibition, there is a tendency, particularly in the work of contemporary artists, to simply offer derivative nods to the body politic whilst continuing the patriarchal tradition of the headless woman. Whilst the show ranges well “beyond those who might identify themselves as surrealists”, the superficial nature of the influence (or curatorial connection) in some work left me questioning the universal ground-breaking media exclamations surrounding the show. Fortunately, there’s enough complex, intelligent and beautifully executed work connected to the body to compensate for the weaker, more obvious and mediocre elements of the show. Caitlin Keogh’s clumsy, derivative acrylics on canvas, Berlinde de Bruyckere’s basic assemblage sculptures or Gillian Wearing’s masked photographic portrait of model Lily Cole laden with illustrative symbolism are examples of work which didn’t engender critical changes in perception.

Rosemarie Trockel’s black and white digital print, reimagining Courbet’s 1866 painting L’Origine du monde /The Origin of the World, is an example of an appropriated work which became interesting in spite of itself for the questions it raised. My initial gut reaction was to sigh and roll my eyes at the projection of fear onto an image of female genitalia. Placing an enormous black spider where the model’s pubic hair should be, even to reclaim one’s own body, sex or gender struck me as perilously dull. Effectively it’s a reduction of Feminine power to B-Movie Body Horror by depicting the female body as something dangerous or deadly. This associative trope has been used since the Book of Genesis as an instrument of shame, self-loathing and control, turning desire into the fallen or demonic Feminine other. If Trockel’s intention is irony, turning the male gaze and traditions of seeing back in on themselves, then this image doesn’t really succeed, because like the disembodied woman, the work is missing its head. Perhaps what it does do, (though only if the original image is known to the viewer) is point to a canonical image of the Feminine by a male artist to generate debate in the present. Or if the historical reference is unknown to the viewer (masculine or feminine), the print could also be seen as a positive confrontation with individual or collective fears.  The curious irony is that Courbet’s title acknowledges timeless feminine creative/ biological and sexual power in a way that Trockel’s tarantulan image does not.  Strangely his full-frontal honesty is more convincing in its rejection of idealism for realism and/ or masculine eroticism. It was and is an image that in 2017 still wouldn’t be reproduced in mainstream media on the grounds of obscenity. That the female body is still regarded as shameful, scandalous, shocking or dangerous is cause for debate in itself. If Trockel’s intent is humour and absurdity in her juxtaposition of the hairy spider, then it simply comes across as a laddish joke, especially in the context of her surrounding work which is equally unconvincing in its vision.

North Gallery, Dreamers Awake Exhibition Photograph by George Darrell, courtesy of White Cube

The claim that “by focussing on the work of women artists, Dreamers Awake shows how, through art foregrounding bodily experience, the symbolic woman of Surrealism is refigured as a creative, sentient, thinking being” just didn’t ring true to me in relation to some of the celebrated contemporary artists in the show.  Sarah Lucas’s entwined chairs, The Kiss (2003, Wooden Chairs, varnish, cigarettes, wire, papier-mâché, acid free glue, leather cord) with a pair of breasts on the back rest and a cock and balls protruding from under the seat made from cigarettes is just a clumsy secondary school gag in comparison to a work such as Lee Miller’s Untitled photograph (Severed breast from radical surgery in a place setting 1 & 2, Paris, c.1929, modern gelatin silver prints) which shares the same gallery space. Then and now, Miller was way ahead of the times. Arguably her bodily experience though invisible in the shot is resoundingly present in the composition, with the raw meat/ severed breast served up on a plate with cutlery laid out for the viewer’s consumption. Many of her images cut through to the truth of lived experience, as a survivor of childhood trauma, former model and a war correspondent, Miller found liberation in the Art and life of photography. The juxtaposition of a domestic dinner setting with the disembodied breast is deeply subversive on a multitude of levels. The breast is disembodied, not as an erotic, maternal or biological focus but in the service of psychological, social and cultural interrogation. The two images served up side by side on a relatively intimate scale have tremendous power, in the equality of ideas and execution. Miller’s bloodied amputation is about as far removed from the neoclassical ideal of womanhood seen in the paintings of artists such as Magritte, Dali, De Chirico, Man Ray or projected in Cocteau’s 1932 film Blood of a Poet in which Miller appears in marble whiteout as an armless Neoclassical Goddess. Whilst narrowly fixated male artists of her generation were placing womanhood on a pedestal of passive desire, Miller fearlessly confronts us with an object which is anti-Beauty and savagely confrontational. Of the same generation, Dorothea Tanning’s statement “I warn you- I am not an object” immediately springs to mind. It’s a warning that like Miller’s photographic statement will never diminish in terms of power or relevance. Her emergence as a Surrealist artist equal to those who subjugated her to the role of muse is only just beginning. A pair of breasts, cock and balls made from cigarettes combined with a domestic chair is a lame and underdeveloped contemporary statement by comparison.

Dreamers Awake Exhibition Photograph by George Darrell courtesy of White Cube

As I wrote in a previous post about the Surreal Encounters/ Collecting the Marvellous exhibition (SNGMA, June 2016) the real power and contemporary relevance of Surrealist Art lies in “reconnect[ing] the viewer with underlying passions, obsessions and political activism”, “a collective sense” “beyond dreamy, escapist fantasies and self-promotion”. Despite the easy conversion of the movement’s famous poster boys into merchandise, Surrealism is “rooted in the reality of global conflict, persecution, economic uncertainty, the rise of totalitarianism and coming to grips with who and what we are as human beings.” The premise of the exhibition does pick up on these undercurrents to some extent; “In a world preoccupied with the politics of identity, in which the advances of previous generations must be continually defended, we see the continued- even renewed- relevance of surrealist ideas and strategies.” I couldn’t agree more. What disappointed me were the misguided allegiances to a revolutionary movement playing in the shadows of the contemporary art market.  I looked forward to seeing more evolved attitudes and refined visual language, taking a lead from female Surrealists of the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s and running with it. I certainly don’t mean “refined” in terms of gentility, but in terms of awareness and the propensity to fight (savagely if necessary) for a way of seeing based on the artist’s identity. The marginalisation of women artists as a homogenous group persists today, therefore this isn’t an exhibition of female Surrealists as much as it is a wakeup call in terms of what we bring to this work as viewers- individually and collectively. It is far too easy (literally and metaphorically) to buy into the “surreal” as a word/idea misappropriated and devalued by consumerist popular culture, creating dreamily vacuous or supremely self-indulgent Art in which the disembodied woman prevails. The best work in the show subverts what we have come to believe (or have been taught) about feminine power, Surrealism and the nature of creativity. In terms of Western society, embracing the unconscious goes hand in hand with acknowledging, confronting and liberating what is held in check beneath the surface for political or patriarchal reasons, which has less to do with sex and more to do with the balance (or inequity) of power.

Eileen Agar Butterfly Bride (1938, Gouache and collage, 17 15/16 x 15 3/16 in)

In Eileen Agar’s Butterfly Bride (1938, Gouache and collage, 17 15/16 x 15 3/16 in) the blue Renaissance silhouette of a woman collaged on a ground of text, essentially the cut out of one age informing the reading of another, operates in a self-reflexive way. The encyclopaedic/ historical text, with reference to British colonies, historical rule and exploration works in counterpoint with the beauty and implied fragility of two exotic looking butterflies and the figure of the “bride”, anonymously blue and as collectable as a specimen in an age of discovery. Agar’s collages are frequently not just about the absurdity of images out of their elements, juxtaposed for 30 second amusement or shock value, but are far more texturally layered and sophisticated in terms of ideas and technique. Here the use of collage doesn’t feel random or automatic but considered in terms of dialogue between elements and the wider context of the work, transcending the time it was made. We may well question the freedoms afforded the Butterfly Bride in our own times.

Louise Bourgeois Breasts and Blade (1991, bronze, silver nitrate and polished patina, 11 x 32 x 16 in.) Reverse View. Photograph: G.Coburn, Dreamers Awake exhibition, White Cube.

There is also more than meets the eye in Breasts and Blade (1991, bronze, silver nitrate and polished patina, 11 x 32 x 16 in.) by Louise Bourgeois. What we see from the front is a sculpture composed of folds of flesh and five breasts like cushions with the pronounced geometry and provocation of protruding nipples.  As you move to the side and back of the structure the overall form comes into view. The associations of comfort and domesticity in an everyday piece of furniture and the couch as a repository of the traditional female nude in art comes into play. Then you come to the switchblade behind, the threat of violence where you’d least expect it, a warning against stereotypes and reductive visions of femininity, maternity and eroticism. The artist’s sculpture is like a surreal beast not in an aesthetic but a revolutionary sense. It defies and changes your perception as you move around and find yourself in relation to it. It’s a tangible presence that nourishes, intrigues, seduces, challenges and menaces the viewer from the plinth. It isn’t fantastical but potently real, infinitely more complex than simple dualism or juxtaposition of opposing elements. The inference of soft comfort is rendered in the solidity of polished metal, the couch accommodating the whole family and its needs, equally a source of feminine disquiet. It lives and grows in the imagination as you experience it resoundingly in three (or more) dimensions, as one would expect from a Master of her own Art. The femininity here has multiple layers, views, identities and hidden capabilities against type- it’s a work which refuses to be boxed, with its own distinct voice. I never cease to be amazed, elated and inspired by the penetrating honesty of this artist’s work. Bourgeois brings much that is held beneath the surface into the light with immense courage, consummate skill, tenacity and feeling.

Hayv KahramanT25 and T26 (2017, Oil on Linen 80 x 60 in) © Hayv Kahraman. Courtesy of the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery and White Cube.

Shannon Bool’s exquisite monochrome tapestry The Five Wives of Lajos Bìrò (Wool tapestry, 98 1/16 x 156 11/16 in), Carina Brandes’ Untitled (2012, black and white photograph on baryta) a triangular, mythical inversion of Leda and the Swan and Hayv Kahraman’s T25 and T26 (2017, Oil on Linen 80 x 60 in) rooted in contemporary war on terror were similarly multifaceted engagements with the highly active nature of Surrealism, rather than giving passive aesthetic nods to it. Jo Ann Callis’s Untitled (Woman with Black Line) c.1976, archival pigment print, 22 1/8 x 19 7/16 in) further articulates this idea. It is an image of a woman photographed from above, with just her head and neck visible, face down in a pillow. There’s a drawn line like a seamed stocking along her back and forming the part of her hair, as if she could come apart, be peeled or shed her skin. Is she alive or dead in this sheath of image making? It’s a very intelligent image in terms of where the framing places the camera/eye/ viewer. We are placed in the uncomfortable position of being complicit in this bloodless, internalised crime scene, rendered with a deceptively soft palette of muted colour.

Alina Szapocznikow Autoportrait II (1966, Bronze, 8 1/16 x 10 ¼ x 4 5/16 in). Front View Photograph G.Coburn, Dreamers Awake exhibition,  White Cube

A work which perhaps summed up the exhibition for me was Alina Szapocznikow’s Autoportrait II (1966, Bronze, 8 1/16 x 10 ¼ x 4 5/16 in). On one side, there is a bird-like creature, composed of cast toes for the two feet, a mouth and chin and what look like outstretched wings, a playful, ingenious, hybrid fusion of a human/ bird free spirit that immediately made me smile. Then on the reverse, a different projection of Self, composed of just the cast mouth and upper breast, defining the “automatic” portrait of a woman. When viewed from this position the potentially shapeshifting woman is invisible. One seeing, the other being seen, one free, the other defined by her body, the living contradiction of what it is to be female in a world that hasn’t progressed far enough. Perhaps it was exactly that which disturbed and disillusioned me considering the exhibition as a whole. As I walked around Dreamers Awake I experienced the hope and exhilarating liberation of Art in terms of human expression, bringing what is hidden into awareness. Equally I saw the retrograde dictation of art by market values and a tendency to adopt traditionally masculine tactics to gain attention. I left this exhibition with faith in the tangible power of imagination and the extraordinary vision of female artists as an agent of positive change. I also saw what Surrealism and Feminism is not. That polarity reflects the wider world of Art/ life and the hard reality of creative work as ever more vital, resistant to or complicit with the political, economic and social extremities of the 21st Century.

www.whitecube.com